You can take that feedback and...

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Feedback is tough. We all want it. We all get it. But somehow we don't usually get what we want. Today's post is going to be a bit of a survival guide to feedback, especially for women. We all want to do better or be better in some way, and feedback helps us know what to focus on and how far we have come. The problem is that our friend, Feedback, is a little rough around the edges. She is noisy, she interrupts you and she undermines your confidence more often than she lifts you up. She doesn't always fight fair.

Cartoon of men and women with empty speech bubbles above their heads

This can be overwhelming to experience. Women experience direct and indirect feedback all the time about our professional behaviour, actions that are perceived in a much different way when performed by men. This isn't a new concept. If you don't trust me, ask Google.

He is a good leader. She is bossy.

He is confident. She is aggressive.

He is firm but fair. She is a bitch.

We hear these things about ourselves and our peers so frequently, they become a part of our identity as we grow up and progress through adulthood. We are conditioned to manage our behaviour in a certain way. But, not all feedback is worthy of this attention. In fact, altering our behaviour to the perceptions of others can have a negative impact on our careers.

I recently completed a leadership assessment. After years of being called bossy and pushy, you learn to tone down your directiveness. My employees rated me as 50% as directive as I had rated myself. Oops! I didn't mean for that to happen. Now they are saying I could be more directive.

The first rule of thumb for feedback is the source and the intention. Does the person providing the feedback have a good intention? Do you trust this person? If the answer is "No," then let the feedback wash over you, shed those tears if you must (I know I do), and then move on with your life and your career.

The second rule of thumb is to recognize when the feedback reflects a cognitive bias. The person may have good intentions and be trustworthy, but his or her judgement is impacted by a systemic bias of which they may not even be aware. This is one that really comes into play with girls and women.

I am parenting two toddler boys and I notice how their questions are treated differently than those of my niece. They are allowed to ask a million questions without being asked to stop, but my niece maxes out after a few.

Sheryl Sandberg explores some of the differences inherent in how men and women are conditioned to certain behaviours in her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The part that really gets me is the whole "damned if you do, damned if you don't" thing. And it comes down to one cognitive bias on the likability of successful women. Check it out...

Now there is a trade off. Do I want to be successful or do I want to be liked? And we all know likability and success go hand-in-hand, so there is the glass ceiling lurking above us waiting to bloody our foreheads if we dare try for both.

I have seen this phenomena numerous times in response to organizational change.

Earlier in my career, I had a female boss who advised that one of my employees, then leading a corporate-wide project, should "stop wearing those shoes" if she wanted to be more successful with her peers. And more recently, an ordinary change management issue was allowed to characterized as a personality conflict between women, a perception that created serious damage within the organization.

In both of these examples, the leadership within the organization was more comfortable in accepting the biases against women than in challenging the resistance to the project. The likability of successful women thus becomes a strategy for those who want to actively resist a change initiative. And one that works!

If this all sounds a little paranoid, it is. But rightfully so. Check out the article from McKinsey: How biases, politics and egos trump good strategy.

The third rule of thumb is to understand when the person providing the feedback has power over you.  The glass ceiling gets really thick when the person in control of your position and compensation has a bias about your success and is providing you with negative feedback.

It isn't helpful to say, "You have a bias," and inform them of the truth. As I am frequently reminded, being right is not a strategy. And this is where that whole Shakespeare thing comes in, "the lady doth protest too much, me thinks." Defending ourselves just makes us look guilty.

And that is why all of us must play nicely with our friend Feedback. The best way to respond to feedback is to say, "Thank you, I will give that some thought." Whether or not you will internalize that feedback and make a change, is up to you. You have the power to choose who you are and how you behave.

Here is where we can all start:

  1. If you have something good to say about someone else, say it!
  2. Give good, relevant and fair feedback to your peers, especially women.
  3. Seek to understand your own biases that affect how you perceive your peers at work.
  4. Give yourself fair feedback. Don't sell yourself short or be your worst critic.

We might not be in a position where we can say, "I'm a woman and I am awesome and here's why you are wrong!" But we can all take some steps toward a better world that allows women to be successful at work.


If this moves you, I invite you to join in on the conversation by posting a comment or sharing on social media.