Being able to receive and give constructive feedback effectively is invaluable to your personal development, as these are skills that are highly valued by employers and coworkers. The ability to receive feedback constructively will help you in enhancing your performance. However, both giving and receiving feedback can be intimidating. Suggestions for improvement can feel like criticism and giving feedback can be tricky if you don’t want to offend the other person. The feedback process gets even more complicated for women.
I will start by laying out some general tips for giving and receiving feedback based on my own experience and research. Then, I will explain why receiving feedback can be extra challenging for women and what you can do about it.
Asking for Feedback
Getting clear and actionable feedback is crucial. Feedback is meant to help you improve, so it needs to be specific. It is important to prepare your questions beforehand. Ask yourself what it is specifically that you want to improve on or what you want others’ perspectives on. Let’s say you want to improve your listening skills. You then write down the questions you are going to ask. Make sure they will elicit clear, specific, and actionable answers. For example, you’ll ask whether the other person feels heard and understood when they talk to you. A yes or a no is not in itself going to help you, so the next question will be: Why or why not? Then you ask for examples: when was the last time you felt heard by me and what about my behaviour was it that made you feel heard?
It is also important to make sure that the other person has enough time for you. Instead of asking when you see them walking down the hall, ask them for an appointment. You can make this request more informal, for instance, if you want to get some feedback from a classmate. You can ask them when they have time to help you, or you could ask them to meet you after school.
Finally, make sure you get rounded feedback. Everyone will perceive you differently, so it is important to ask multiple people for feedback. For example, you could ask four classmates, two teachers, two colleagues and some family members or friends. Ask for feedback from various individuals who interact with you in different environments so that you can get a well rounded picture of how you are perceived.
Receiving feedback can be tricky as it can make you feel criticised. Remember that no matter what the feedback was, this person took time out of their day to help you. It is meant to help you develop. You should always assume that the other person had good intentions with their feedback.
Don’t fixate on it. Use the feedback constructively and plan on how you are going to use this feedback to improve. Feedback is an opportunity for you to improve. So don’t focus on what you were doing wrong, focus on how you are going to improve.
Take some time to process your feedback. Do not react immediately. It is especially important to not react defensively. People will not want to give you feedback if you react negatively to it. After you get feedback, thank the other person and say that you need some time to process and reflect on the feedback. Then leave. Give yourself at least 24 hours before coming back to discuss your feedback and ask questions.
It can be equally hard to give feedback as it is to receive feedback. It is helpful to ask yourself how you would want to receive feedback. Chances are, the other person values the same feedback strategy.
Plan your feedback. Plan on when and where you are going to give the feedback. Prepare what you are going to say and prepare specific examples to illustrate your points.
Focus on your tone: make sure that your tone is informal (depending on the situation at hand), approachable, and supportive.
Focus on growth by suggesting ways the other person can improve.
Balance negative with positive feedback. Positive feedback is important because it shows the other person that you recognise their accomplishments and because it highlights to the other person what they need to keep on doing.
Listen. The other person might have a different perspective or different intentions and knowing those might change your feedback. Present your feedback in a discussion-like manner.
Women and Feedback
The way in which women are offered feedback differs vastly from the way men are offered feedback. This is caused by a bias called the “likeability bias” or the “double bind”. This is an unconscious bias where women are perceived as either effective or likeable, never both. This bias affects only women but can be held by both men and women. When women are seen as communal, warm, and nice, they are seen as more likeable but less competent. When women are assertive, they are seen as less likeable.
The double bind causes inequality in feedback. Overall women ask for feedback as much as men do, but they receive less feedback than men. The feedback women receive is more focused on their communication style whereas feedback for men is focused on their performance. Women also tend to get more critical feedback whereas men get constructive feedback, and women get more vague feedback where men get more actionable feedback.
Vague feedback can hinder your career development and even your compensation. So it is important to recognise it when you are dealing with gender-biased feedback and to turn it into actionable, constructive, and specific feedback. It is important to remain resilient and to advocate for better feedback, even if it makes you seem more assertive and therefore less likeable. Women who are seen as more agreeable and therefore more likeable, but are also seen as less competent. So just being likeable will not help your career development either.
When you receive vague feedback, try to make it specific: ask what you can improve on specifically, and ask for concrete examples. Make sure you come prepared to highlight your results and shift the focus to your performance. For example, ask how this feedback connects to your performance.
When women get feedback based on their style, they are typically told that they are either too aggressive, and therefore too unfeminine, or that they are too timid, and therefore too feminine. It is important to connect style-based feedback to your results and to correct any misperceptions. Usually, you should not get defensive when receiving feedback, but it can hurt your career when you let misperceptions stand. These two ways in which women typically receive feedback have to be handled differently.
When you are told that you are too aggressive, assertive, or overbearing:
- Ask questions about how the feedback relates to the work you do. Make sure to ask for specific examples
- Shift the conversation to your results and achievements
- Ask who handles these kinds of situations
- Ask for guidance on how to change
When you start prodding, the other person will usually recognise that their feedback has no bearing on your actual achievements and give you the feedback that you are actually asking for.
When you are told that you are too timid or agreeable:
- Being collaborative is a trait that is often considered feminine, but it is still a valuable trait, focus on this value
- Explain your strategic intention: explain what you were trying to accomplish by being collaborative and what your results were
- Show the value of working across teams
I hope that you will find these tips helpful in developing yourself and helping others do the same. The key is to practice these skills, so don’t be afraid to ask others to help you, by giving you feedback or asking you for feedback. Being able to effectively give and receive feedback will help you enhance your performance, whether you’re in school or the working world. Unfortunately, the feedback process can get a bit complicated for women, but it does not need to hinder your personal, academic or professional development if you know how to deal with gender-biased feedback.
Written by Merel Melchers
Merel is an undergraduate studying English with Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. She enjoys reading, writing and playing with her dog. She mainly writes about personal development, student life, and mental health to motivated and guide passionate young women.