Constructive feedback is essential for anyone’s growth. But as a manager, it can be challenging to strike a fair, consistent balance between being candid and considerate when giving that feedback to different team members. Specifically, in our recent research, we found that even if their male and female employees perform at exactly the same level, managers tend to prioritize kindness more when giving feedback to women than when giving the same feedback to men.
Across a series of studies, we asked more than 1,500 MBA students, full-time employees, and managers based in the U.S. and UK to imagine giving developmental feedback to an employee who needed to improve their performance. The employee was described in exactly the same way to all participants, except that half were told the employee’s name was Sarah, while the other half were told the employee’s name was Andrew. We then asked the participants about their goals going into this conversation, and while they all said they wanted to give candid feedback, those who were told the employee was named Sarah were significantly more likely than those who were told the employee was named Andrew to prioritize being kind as well. This was true regardless of the gender or political leanings of the person giving the feedback: Whether they self-identified as male or female, liberal or conservative, our participants consistently reported being more motivated to be kind when giving feedback to a woman than when giving it to a man.
We further confirmed this effect by analyzing real-world feedback given to a large cohort of international MBA students by more than 4,800 of their former supervisors, mentors, peers, and subordinates from jobs held prior to joining the MBA program. All else being equal, we found that the feedback given to women was on average more positive in both tone and content than that given to men. And when we asked the evaluators about their motivations and goals when providing their feedback, we again found that they were more likely to say that they had prioritized kindness when they were evaluating women than when evaluating men.
So what causes this disparity? There’s a common stereotype that women are warmer than men, and when we see someone as warm, we’re naturally inclined to be kinder and more sympathetic toward them. Our results show that this stereotype is what drives the kindness bias: We tend to view women as warmer, and that makes us want to be kinder when giving them critical feedback. In addition, our participants reported that they viewed kind feedback as more helpful for women than for men, suggesting that their goal in giving women kinder feedback was to communicate in the manner that they thought would be most helpful to the recipient.
Importantly, we found no evidence to suggest that managers are trying to hold women back. This bias was not driven by a belief that women were less competent than men, a worry about appearing prejudiced toward women, or a fear that women would be less able to handle negative feedback. The participants in our studies simply thought that it was more helpful to prioritize kindness when talking to women.
Of course, kindness isn’t a bad thing — but giving feedback differently based on the gender of the recipient creates problems for everyone. Past research has shown that women are more likely to receive inflated feedback, and less likely to receive actionable feedback, than men are. Inaccurate, unhelpful, or unclear feedback (even when motivated by the desire to be kind) can end up obscuring critical growth opportunities and cause women to be less likely to get important job assignments, raises, or promotions. At the same time, a lack of kindness in feedback given to men may inhibit their growth, harm their wellbeing, and contribute to a workplace culture imbued with toxic gender norms.
To address these challenges, managers must prioritize giving feedback that’s both accurate and kind, no matter who they’re talking to. To be sure, this can be a tricky balance to strike — but a little planning goes a long way. Before a feedback conversation, write out the specific, actionable points you need to get across, as well as opportunities to exhibit kindness while offering these constructive critiques. Be intentional about sprinkling in kindness throughout the conversation equally whether you’re giving feedback to a man or to a women, and after sharing it, ask the recipient to repeat back the key takeaways to ensure your kindess hasn’t obscured the content you’re trying to convey. Auditing written feedback on an organizational level can also make it possible to identify gendered patterns in the tone and content of feedback, helping root out biases that may be harder for individuals to spot.
It’s also important to note that the kindness bias likely extends beyond the context of the gender binary. Both the full gender spectrum as well as intersections between gender, race, class, and other identities all influence how we communicate with and perceive one another. For example, past research has found that Black students are more likely to receive inflated feedback because evaluators are worried about appearing prejudiced. Could this effect compound with the kindness bias and result in Black women receiving even less helpful feedback than their white female counterparts?
Further research is needed to explore these complex interactions. But no matter the recipient, it’s clear that kindness and candor alike are necessary components of effective feedback. It’s up to managers to make sure they’re taking an equitable approach to distributing both.
Courtesy Harvard Business Review. By Lily Jampol, Aneeta Rattan and Elizabeth Bailey Wolf. Article available here.