I Survived a Sexist Feedback Session (Part 1)
A lot of damage can be done in 45 minutes.
Wonder why women are opting out of leadership roles? Part of it is the feedback we receive. If you aren’t carefully considering the what and why of your feedback you often leave those who don’t benefit from traditional power structures — usually anyone who is not a white male — feeling confused and excluded. Think this could never happen to you? Don’t be so sure. Everyone has inherent bias.
This is the first piece in a series about a single, 45 minute feedback session.
According to a Stanford University study, research shows women in the workplace are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when feedback is developmental. I received this feedback. It contributed to my decision to leave my leadership role at the organization I co-founded and loved.
The day of my feedback session with my boss, the Executive Director, we were already on edge. Monday mornings were often anxiety-inducing because of the regularly scheduled executive meeting. The Executive team had been deteriorating for some time, partially because of the issues set out in this series. These meetings were never easy and it wasn’t unusual for the entire Executive team to leave feeling disgruntled. Both the ED and I were tense as we met in the hallway at the start of our one-on-one feedback session.
“Where do you want to meet today?” the ED asked me.
It was early May and just starting to get warm.
“How about the 5th floor? Outside on the terrace?” I asked. I hoped the sun would boost my spirits. I also knew I could wear my black Ray Bans if we sat outside. They hid my eyes and made me feel less vulnerable. They provided a shield — leaving me feeling armed to argue with more conviction.
As we sat down at a small two-top table near the ledge I felt anxious. I had spent significant time preparing for the meeting over the weekend but wondered if the earlier vibe would throw everything off. I pulled out my notebook and a pen and waited for the ED to begin.
We had each prepared a 2x2 form in advance. The form asked each person to list two things you did well, two things you thought you could improve, two things the other person did well and two things you thought the other person could improve. I looked down at the notes I prepared over the weekend.
“Who should go first?” The ED asked.
“You can,” I replied.
“Okay, let’s start with the positive,” he began, looking down at his form and avoiding my eyes, which were still hidden behind my sunglasses. “You’re doing a great job delegating. I think this will free you up for big-picture thinking soon. You’ve also maintained a high level of responsiveness — always getting back to me and others quickly. I appreciate that.”
“Thanks,” I replied, feeling the pit in my stomach unclench ever so slightly. “I’ve been thinking about how to allow myself time to tackle the strategic issues we’re dealing with. It’s starting to pay off.”
“It definitely is!” said the ED. “Now let’s move to where you can improve. I actually only have one point for you to focus on.”
Wow, I thought to myself, this may be going better than I’d expected.
“You need to improve your interactions with Tom.* When you spend time with him, it looks like you’re mad at him. You make decisions that aren’t constructive to improving your relationship.”
Any easing of my anxiety immediately reversed. The pit in my stomach grew heavier. Did I hear that right? The only point of improvement my manager had for me was to improve my relationship with my male colleague, Tom… Really?
I will save my thoughts on discussing appearance at the workplace for another time, but it should have raised a red flag when the ED followed his improvement point with a note about my facial expression. It was the worst cliché— was he telling me to smile more?
He didn’t want to talk about my work assignments. He didn’t want to talk about my presentation style. He wanted to talk about my “relationship” with a male colleague.
The ED and Tom are white men who were born and raised in New York City. I frequently felt like the odd woman out in our executive meetings. The ED often deferred to Tom around big-picture strategy despite the fact that our positions were equal. For example, when Tom was tasked with creating an organizational chart for his department he returned with a plan to have a more knowledgeable and experienced lawyer report to Tom. According to Tom’s plan that more experienced lawyer would supervise a team of four more junior lawyers. When I questioned this strategy — asking why a more senior attorney would report to someone with less experience and why we needed a middle manager at all — the ED dismissed my concerns and moved forward with Tom’s plan. Other strategic discussions took a similar turn. I didn’t know the secret handshake and now I was being told I needed to win both men over.
I wanted to improve, though. If the ED thought this was the only thing I needed to address (despite the form asking for two points), I knew I should try to figure it out. Tom and I had been working together for years without major problems. Of course there had been times when we didn’t see eye to eye but our relationship never kept me from delivering strong work. Sometimes our different perspectives led to interesting compromises. The ED had joined our team approximately nine months ago. In those months had he witnessed something more problematic? Something that was affecting the success of the non-profit? What had changed?
While questions did arise, I accepted it was on me to adjust. I saw no other choice.
I inhaled deeply ready for the next part of the exercise. Thankfully, the form required more detail — detail I hoped would shed light on what exactly I should do to improve. The form asked for specific examples of how the problem presented itself. Specifics would help. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook prepared to hear these examples. Surely the ED would show me how my relationship with Tom was harming the organization and help me devise a path to improve. Read about the first example in Part 2 of the series.