Male Bosses: Are You Afraid to Give Women Feedback?

Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 11:06 AM EDT

Although I now teach MBA students, I don't have an MBA myself. My experience of management education came exclusively from my employers and from an executive program at London Business School. That was only a four-week stint, but it left me with food for thought that lasted for years.

As a woman I was in a distinct minority; our class had 3 women and 30 men. The guys mostly came from banking, broadcasting and energy. Apart from one highly dysfunctional Swiss banker, they were nice, smart and eager to learn. In the course of many great conversations about men and women at work, the guys told me something that amazed me: They rarely gave their female employees honest feedback because they were afraid the women would cry.

I was stunned. These men respected their female colleagues and took them seriously, but if there was anything wrong with their work, nobody would tell them. This meant, of course, that the women kept repeating their mistakes and were left to do so because the guys lacked the gumption to be straight with them.What I told my classmates was: Forget it! No woman worth hiring would ever cry in front of you. First, because we're too proud and too professional. And second, because we are sane, rational creatures (a little like you), and we can handle feedback -- we know that without it, we all fail.

What was so funny, and so bizarre, about the situation these guys described is that it was the men who were being cowardly in thinking that women lack courage. So for those of you who still agonize about this kind of thing, here's some advice about giving feedback. It works for women and for men -- and for just about anyone that's fit for employment.
  1. Don't divide feedback into good and bad. Morality isn't the issue here. Frame it in four categories: what you should stop doing, what you need to start doing, what you should keep doing, and what you should do more of.
  2. Make sure your feedback derives from evidence that comes from more than one source. That way you can discuss it without naming names -- and be confident that you aren't wrong.
  3. Make sure you understand the employee's professional goals. To the degree that you frame the feedback with that understanding, even the negative stuff comes across as productive.
  4. Don't leave it for the next performance review. Set up a few quick sessions to see how things are going. Make it clear that these may just last for 15 minutes. Most improvement is incremental, and a year is too long to wait for course corrections.
And, while you're at it, take the box of tissues off the desk and put them in a drawer.
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.