Harvard Business Review’s September cover kind of says it all. It shows a profile of a woman and three phrases in bold letters:
If you’re a woman in the workplace, you have probably noticed that you’re a lot more likely than your male colleagues to get stylistic criticism. Like it or not, organizations still tend to pay as much attention to how women behave as to what they accomplish.
I think stylistic feedback is the hardest kind of feedback to deal with. It’s one thing to hear that your data was wrong or that your marketing strategy was weak. But stylistic feedback is about you. Whether or not it’s justified or accurate, it’s personal. To make matters worse, people often deliver this kind of feedback quite badly. So it’s hard to hear, hard to decipher and hard to address.
Here are the five most common mistakes I see women make in dealing with stylistic feedback:
1. Denial. This is an understandable and automatic response. If someone says we’re too emotional, we’re likely to respond with, “No I’m not.” Whether or not you feel the feedback is valid, dismissing it out of hand could come back to bite you.
2. Blame. I had one client tell me, “I wouldn’t have to be so demanding if the people around me weren’t such idiots.” Even if every member of your team is woefully inadequate – as long you’re blaming others for your reactions, you’re not learning and the situation will not improve.
3. Intensification. This seems counterintuitive, but I see it happen a lot. Someone gets feedback that what she’s doing isn’t working. Her initial reaction? To do what she’s been doing, but do it harder, longer, faster, more. One client told me, “No matter how much I support my team, they still aren’t delivering. I guess I need to be even more supportive.” In other words, in times of stress we tend to draw more heavily on what we already know and are good at. But when that isn’t getting results, doing more of it usually doesn’t help.
4. Abandonment. This is the opposite response from intensification. The internal message here is, “They say I’m bossy. I guess I’ll just have to start beating around the bush and start sugar-coating everything.” Not a great strategy. You probably won’t be very good at it, and you definitely can’t sustain it long term. Most importantly, no one else is buying it.
5. Style ‘whack a mole.’ Some women I’ve worked with try to suss out each situation and behave as they think others want them to act. I’m not talking about appropriate situational adjustment here, but rather a form of play-acting where you’re trying to be whoever/whatever you think others want you to be, in the hopes that you’ll avoid getting slammed. Big mistake. First of all, it’s exhausting. And ultimately it will backfire. You’ll come across as inauthentic, inconsistent or, worse, manipulative.
However unfair or unskillful stylistic feedback may be, it is always an opportunity to learn something. That’s where I always suggest that people start – looking for the learning nugget. Maybe you will discover something about yourself. Or maybe it can help you understand something new about the feedback-giver. Maybe it will give you valuable insight into the organization’s culture.
About yourself. The leaders I’ve worked with who were most successful at dealing with stylistic feedback have been able to find the grain of truth in it. One of my clients got feedback that she was too judgmental, to which she initially responded with blame. But when I asked her how her relationships at home were going, she reported that her daughter was intimidated by her and avoided contact. Despite the fact that my client still didn’t respect the views of the person who gave her feedback, she was able to see the thread of truth: that her forceful style was getting in the way of important relationships both at home and at work. From that point on, she invested fully in her own development and made stunning stylistic shifts. She developed a strong compassionate side, without ever losing her signature feistiness.
About the feedback giver. If you can’t find any evidence that the stylistic feedback you’ve received is accurate or valid, it still gives you insight into the values and preferences of the feedback-giver. While s/he may be saying that you’re objectively ‘too emotional,’ the meaning may actually be that your style is overpowering to him or her. You may learn from this feedback that dialing down your own intensity will help you be more effective with that person.
About the organization and its culture. I’ve had a lot of clients who have moved to new organizations and been hit with stylistic feedback that they’ve never encountered before. Often, that’s because what was expected or acceptable in a previous environment is devalued in another. For example, I’ve coached many ex-military people who have transitioned to the civilian sector. Once lauded for their directness and clarity, they may be harshly criticized in their new environment for being overbearing. While this feedback may be confusing, it can provide crucial insights into the values of the new organization and the adjustments that you may have to make to be successful there.
If you’re a woman in the workplace, you are much more likely to receive feedback on your style than your male colleagues are. So you might as well plan for it. If it comes your way, try to make sure that you don’t fall for any of the classic unhelpful responses. Instead, use style-related feedback as an opportunity to learn something – about yourself, the person giving you feedback, or your organization.