Vague feedback to minorities as a hold back for promotions

This page is a summary of a study published by The Harvard Business School

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Necessary critical feedback can be difficult for a manager to offer to anybody, but as Professor Stacy Blake-Beard has shown, it can be especially uncomfortable when it is given across a dimension of difference, such as gender, race, sexual preferences or age. When giving critical feedback to a minority, managers may be especially worried about how the feedback will be received. This “protective hesitation” — the failure to give feedback due to worry that the recipient might be upset — is a critical barrier in having conversations necessary to advance minority’s careers.



A deeper analysis of over 200 performance reviews within one large technology company showed that reviews for women had vague praise more often than reviews for men (57% and 43%, respectively). Comments such as “You had a great year” populated many women’s reviews. In contrast, an analysis found that developmental feedback for men was more likely to be linked to business outcomes (60% for men versus 40% for women).

Further, when women received specific developmental feedback, it tended to be overly focused on their communication style. While ability to communicate can be an important skill for leaders, it is noteworthy that women received most of the negative feedback about communication styles. Comments such as “Her speaking style and approach can be off-putting to some people at times” point to a manager’s concern but do not offer ways to improve specific behaviors. This kind of feedback was frequently offered in women’s reviews. In fact, 76% of references to being “too aggressive” happened in women’s reviews, versus 24% in men’s.

In contrast, men were more likely to receive insightful developmental feedback about their technical skills, such as “You need to deepen your domain knowledge in the X space — once you have that understanding, you will be able to contribute to the design decisions that impact the customer.” Developing relevant technical skills is essential to being considered a leader in a technical organization.


Clearly, these dynamics can disadvantage women at promotion time. Without specific, documented business accomplishments, it is difficult for a manager to make the case for advancement. Conversely, if a business objective was missed, a lack of frank feedback deprives women of the opportunity to hit the mark next time.



Research shows that women get less frequent and lower-quality feedback than men. Men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level. When people don’t receive feedback, they are less likely to know their worth in negotiations. Moreover, people who receive little feedback are ill-equipped to assess their strengths, shore up their weaknesses, and judge their prospects for success and are therefore less able to build the confidence they need to proactively seek promotions or make risky decisions.


The good news is that investing in better feedback can have dramatic results. In a pilot program called Step Up, implemented at Microsoft, technology leader Lauren Antonoff created a yearlong leadership development process grounded in clear and actionable feedback. Its purpose is to recognize what leaders are doing well and what they need to work on — with specific recommendations for improvement and with clear outcomes. Out of the 17 women who participated the first year, six were promoted into a leadership role.




Managers can improve the feedback they give and start leveling the playing field at the team level with a few simple steps:


* Before you begin evaluations, either written or verbal, outline the specific criteria you are employing to evaluate individuals. Articulate the specific results or behaviors that would demonstrate mastery. Use the same criteria for all employees at this level.


* Set a goal to discuss three specific business outcomes with all employees. If you can’t think of those outcomes for a particular employee, dig deeper or ask the employee or their peers to provide more details.


* Systematically tie feedback — either positive or developmental — to business and goals outcomes. If you find yourself giving feedback without tying it to outcomes (e.g., “People like working with you”), ask yourself whether you can further tie the feedback to specific results (e.g., “You are effective at building team outcomes. You successfully resolved the divide between the engineering team and the product team on which features to prioritize in our last sprint, leading us to ship the product on time.”).


* When evaluating people in similar roles, equalize references to technical accomplishments and capability. Notice when detail is lacking for a particular employee and make an extra effort to determine whether something, either a skill or a developmental need, has been missed.


* Strive to write reviews of similar lengths for all employees. This helps ensure a similar level of detail — and therefore of specifics — for everyone