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The Gifts and Perils of Feedback

Many of us inwardly cringe when we know a boss or colleague is gearing up to give us feedback. Particularly if we tend to be perfectionistic, hearing others’ criticisms can be especially stressful. We may have a tendency to discount the accolades and obsess over areas needing improvement, using it as an opportunity to reinforce that inner voice that tells us we’re not good enough.

How valuable is feedback really?

Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, cautions that women can be overly reliant on feedback. Due to our good girl conditioning and the fact that throughout most of history, our survival depended on being liked and accepted, we tend to care too much about what others think.

Mohr proposes an alternative way of looking at feedback – that it tells us more about the person giving the feedback than it reveals about us or our work. She explains that when we unhook from the need for praise or criticism, we are free to consider others’ perspectives without feeling that our worthiness is defined by them. And we can actively seek out feedback only from those whose opinion truly matters, instead of trying to get affirmation from everyone. Mohr explains, “Feedback is vital not because it tells us about our own value but because it tells us whether we are reaching the people we need to reach.”

What does feedback reveal about organizational culture?

We think this discerning attitude towards feedback can also benefit women leaders who aren’t fitting into organizational norms. Maybe a leader is labeled as abrasive by her boss because she has a direct communication style. It’s helpful for the leader to question what this reveals about her boss and the organization before she beats herself up for being too bossy. Does her boss have a softer style? Does the organization value relationships as much as results? The leader may still need to adjust her style to be successful in this organization, but it’s important to recognize the context in which she’s making this change. At another organization, her natural style may be welcomed and applauded.

Sometimes feedback can be a powerful catalyst for change.

Our signature program, The Moxie Project, is a six-month journey that is feedback-rich. Our participants not only receive 360-degree feedback at the start of the program, they also receive regular feedback from their coach and their peers. This has real benefits:

•  They uncover blind spots they didn’t know existed. When a participant hears from multiple stakeholders that she interrupts and doesn’t listen, she can trust that is a behavior that needs to change because she’s bound to be missing information.

•  They discover strengths they didn’t realize they had. Participants realize that attributes they take for granted are truly valued by others. And they can begin to leverage them more as a result.

•  They realize when their impact isn’t matching their intent. A leader who is trying to be collaborative may find out that others see her as indecisive, delaying action until everyone is on board. This is valuable information and points out a shift that could make her more effective.

Women sometimes don’t get the same high quality feedback as men.

In the Women at Work podcast “We Deserve Better Than Attagirl”, Robyn Ely, faculty chair of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative, details research that shows women get qualitative feedback that is more positive than men, but it’s also more vague. According to Ely’s research, men tend to get more specific, developmental feedback, which helps them correct behaviors that are getting in their way. By handling women with kid gloves, managers are slowing their development, because they don’t know what to work on to improve. Women would be well-served to ask for the specifics they need. This might sound like, “What should I be doing more or less of if I want to get to the next level?”

So what’s the bottom line on feedback?

Clearly, it’s critical to reduce blindspots by understanding the perceptions of others. We’ve worked with many women leaders who have made powerful changes as a result of feedback, and those changes have led to better results and greater responsibility. But we need to be careful to take the context of the feedback into account and ask ourselves whether this is a stakeholder whose point of view matters. And when we don’t get the information we need to gauge how we’re really doing, we need to demand it.