Overcoming Gender Bias in Performance Feedback #3: Avoiding Vague Feedback

“You lack executive presence.”
“If you had more confidence, you could excel here.”
“You’re doing a great job. You’re such a hard worker!”

If you’re a woman, you’ve probably heard these statements or others like them during a performance evaluation. And, like many women, you probably walk away from these conversations feeling confused and frustrated because you haven’t been provided with any actionable advice.

Women receive less constructive and more vague feedback.

Research has demonstrated that women generally receive less constructively critical feedback than men, and the feedback they do receive tends to be more vague, such as the examples provided above. The feedback women receive is less likely to be specifically tied to outcomes, whether they are receiving praise or developmental feedback. Additionally, women are often told they are doing a “good job,” but aren’t told which specific actions are valued or the positive impact of their work. The specific feedback women do receive, as noted in the previous post on this topic, tends to focus on personality issues, such as communication style, rather than business outcomes. Due to the power differentials present in the performance feedback process, women often interpret ambiguous feedback negatively, which ultimately leads them to opt out of opportunities for leadership development because they underestimate the value of their work. Finally, researchers have found that vague feedback is correlated with lower quantitative performance ratings for women but not for men. This means that although men may also be the recipients of vague feedback, it doesn’t have the same negative effects on the metrics that count for advancement in most organizations.

How can you be more specific in your feedback to women?

If you’re a manager, how can you avoid giving your female direct reports vague, unhelpful feedback? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Utilize a broad group of reviewers to collect feedback prior to the formal review. Many organizations now use a 360 assessment process to gather feedback from supervisors, peers, and direct reports, but this type of assessment is typically reserved for those at the highest levels of leadership. If a formal 360 is not available for your direct reports, talk with your performance management division about the possibility of implementing a process that allows you to collect specific just-in-time feedback on the actual performance and working relationships of your employees rather than relying on your own impressions, which may occur at a distance.

  2. Provide performance feedback on a more frequent basis. Providing just-in-time feedback in addition to the traditional annual performance review will give you an opportunity to see (and remember!) actual behavior in the moment that might inform your employees’ development. Instead of waiting for the annual performance review, consider meeting with your direct reports on a quarterly basis to formally share feedback with them. This will allow you to have a more comprehensive look at their performance, providing insight to their growth, how they are responding to your feedback, their weak and strong points, and areas where they are excelling.

  3. Identify specific criteria for evaluation along with results and behaviors that demonstrate mastery of each competency. If “effective communication” is a competency that employees are rated on in your organization, identify the specific communication behaviors that demonstrate alignment with your rating scale. For example, your employee’s role may include regularly making presentations to key stakeholders, and you expect her to support her recommendations with supporting material or evidence. The highest point on your rating scale could be described behaviorally as “employs timely and relevant material to provide effective support in a way that reflects a thorough understanding of the issue.” On the other hand, the lowest point on your scale could be described by the following behavior: “insufficient or inappropriate supporting materials used.” The use of a rubric including specific behaviors will provide you with a starting point for more specific narrative feedback.

  4. When giving feedback, always speak to the observed behavior (what the employee did and how she did it); the outcome (what resulted from her behavior and how it impacted the team/company); and next steps (how she can maintain positive outcomes, improve average outcomes, and work to solve negative ones).

Using these suggestions when providing feedback to ALL of your employees will improve your organization’s performance review culture. And for female employees, it may serve to keep them in the leadership pipeline rather than encouraging them to opt out.


Bear, J. B., Cushenberry, L., London, M. & Sherman, G. D. (2017). Performance feedback, power retention, and the gender gap in leadership. The Leadership Quarterly. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2017.02.003.

Biernat, M., Tocci, M. J., & Williams, J. C. (2012). The language of performance evaluations: Gender-based shifts in content and consistency of judgment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 186-102.

Cecchi-Dimeglio, P. (2017, April). How gender bias corrupts performance reviews and what to do about it. Harvard Business Review. DOI: hbr.org//2017/04/how-gender-bias-corrupts-performance-reviews-and-what-to-do-about-it.

Correll, S., & Simard, C. (2016, April). Research: Vague feedback is holding women back. Harvard Business Review. DOI: hbr.org/2016/04/research-vague-feedback-is-holding-women-back


Jaime Goff1 Comment