3 Ways to Avoid Giving Women Vague Feedback in Performance Reviews

“Your communication style is too aggressive.”

“You need to strengthen your knowledge of emerging markets.”

Which of the above statement is more likely to be found in the performance review of a female employee? According to research on performance feedback by Stanford researchers, women are more likely to receive vague feedback (the former), and men are more likely to hear specific, developmental feedback (the latter).

The report also found 76 percent of references to being “too aggressive” in women’s reviews, compared to  24 percent in men’s reviews, with the researchers saying negative feedback to women often dealt with communication style, rather than skills to improve.

Feedback between managers and reports is often documented in performance reviews, and is thus used to advocate for promotions and raises. The implications of women missing out on getting their achievements documented, and being guided towards improving their skill set, is obvious. A word from one’s manager on what needs to be improved and the opportunity to follow through on that request is powerful in driving upward mobility year after year — and women may be missing out.

The research took place at three high-tech companies and one professional services firm — if your company is also falling prey to gendered differences in feedback, here are some tips to improve.

Reduce Unconscious Bias

No manager sets out to treat one employee different from another, especially due to race or gender differences. We all learn bias based on past experiences and cultural stereotypes, and we have to first recognize it to unlearn it. Harvard’s Implicit Association Test can show managers what biases they have, but keep in mind that while 15 percent of American men are over six feet tall and almost 60 percent of corporate CEOs are over six feet tall — bias definitely exists, and it’s less a moral failing and more a shortcut our brains make in order to make decisions.

One way to reduce unconscious bias is to develop a program for easy documentation. List out the expectations and goals for a role before filling the position, and stay consistent with that list when reviewing performance. A program for anonymous surveys can also uncover bias reported by employees themselves.

Develop a Performance Review Checklist

“You had a great year” is one example of vague feedback found on women’s performance reviews, the study said. A checklist could require managers to include three pieces of positive feedback and three pieces of constructive feedback, and require each one to be supported with a specific example or business outcome.

For example, telling an employee she needs to work on project management fails to be constructive if the feedback lacks a specific example of a time she underperformed. Reminding her of a project that missed a deadline because she failed to communicate deliverables allows her to examine the root cause and know what to do differently next time.

Similarly, positive feedback also needs to be specific. Being told your execution on building new app features is solid usually only sets you up to continue in the same level of responsibility — whereas hearing your execution drove growth in market share could set you up for a promotion.  A checklist for managers to follow ensures feedback is comparable across teams.

Train Managers to Give Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback is not the same as negative feedback. Calling it constructive assumes that the giver has a plan, and expects performance to improve based on the feedback. The first rule of constructive feedback is to not go in without a plan and expected result. Many performance reviews are shifting towards forward-thinking conversations rather than backward-looking reviews for this reason.

A common fear with constructive feedback is that it will upset the employee. The researchers in the Stanford study call this out regarding gender: “When giving critical feedback to women, male 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 women’s careers.”

Yet, bad experiences in feedback conversations are not a result of the feedback itself, but how it was delivered. We think of conflict as bad because it’s been handled poorly in the past. One antidote is to practice — with a friend, a partner or through a workshop run by HR.