byFairygodbosson May 02, 2016

Performance Reviews: Getting Specific Feedback

Feedback for employees

Photo credit:Creative Commons

Research has shown that when women and men are given critical performance review feedback, men tend to receive suggestions to develop additional skills while women receive more negative personality-based criticism. Last week, Stanford University Professor Shelley Correll and Senior Research Director at the Stanford Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership, Caroline Simard, added to the body of literature around performance reviews and bias in a piece they published for the Harvard Business Review.

Dr. Simard previously reported findings based on an analysis of hundreds of performance reviews from four technology and professional-services firms. Last summer, her work reportedly found that words appearing frequently in performance reviews for male employees such as “drive”, “transform”, “innovate” and “tackle” would also appear more frequently in candidate descriptions used to select an employee for an important promotion.

Now, Drs. Correll and Simard elaborate on their previous findings and observe that when women receive feedback at work, it is more vague than feedback from men. In an analysis of 200 performance reviews at a large technology company, women appeared to receive  feedback that was less specific than men’s, whether it was positive or negative. For examples, comments such as “You had a great year” were more often given to women than men (57% for women vs. 43% for men). The reverse was true when it came to reviews that linked feedback to more specific business outcomes (60% for men vs. 40% for women).

Correll and Simard also observe that women tend to receive feedback that focus on their communication style — with women receiving over 2/3 of comments pointing out that an employee was “too aggressive”. The authors suggests that these results may be a consequence of unconscious bias. They write that “Stereotypes about women’s capabilities mean that reviewers are less likely to connect women’s contributions to business outcomes or to acknowledge their technical expertise. Stereotypes about women’s care-giving abilities may cause reviewers to more frequently attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than team leadership.”

So what can managers do? Both male and female managers have been found to hold similar gender biases. To level the playing field, Correll and Simard suggest taking a few concrete steps:

- Outline specific criteria to evaluate individuals in their performance review before giving them their review
- Tie employee feedback to business goals and outcomes
- Strive to write reviews of similar lengths for all employees

Correll and Simard also suggest that if you find yourself giving feedback without tying it to specific outcomes (e.g. saying something like “People like working with you”), ask yourself whether you can simply be more specific. They suggest a counter-example: “You are effective at building team outcomes. You successfully resolved the divide between the engineering team and the product team on which features to prioritize in our last sprint, leading us to ship the product on time.”

Receiving specific, actionable feedback in our performance reviews is something we would all appreciate. And in the case of women, it may mean that our next promotion depends on it. So if you're experiencing vague feedback at work -- know you're not alone -- and ask for more specific details!


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