One of the most consistent themes in coaching sessions with ambitious women is an enormous frustration about feeling that their views, achievements and capabilities are not respected. These driven individuals think that they are giving their all and doing great work that should demand the attention and respect but feel that they are performing to an empty house. Does it matter to anyone but those individuals? Are they asking too much?
Respect is a behaviour, attitude or style of communication which can be hard to pin down. As a verb – a doing word – it’s defined as “to admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” I emphasise that a verb is a doing word because the demonstration of respect requires action.
Not receiving this demonstration of the worth of ‘abilities, qualities or achievements’ really does matter and it matters materially to the organisation, because without it people become disengaged and when people are disengaged their performance declines – ‘why should I bother if nobody seems to think what I do has any significance or value?’ At it’s the most extreme end of the spectrum this lack of demonstrable respect results in the loss of talent as they vote with their feet and leave to find an organisation that will value them and their work.
Research by the Catalyst Organisation makes it clear that women receive less feedback than their male counterparts. And it is feedback that is the vehicle to deliver the respect that all employees seek. But clearly this is a gendered issue and one which organisations must be address if they are to maximise performance. Not only does disengagement undermine existing performance but a lack of feedback also impedes the opportunity to develop, improve and perform better. Catalyst makes it very clear that a lack of feedback is also significant in slowing women’s speed of progression relative to men
There are some psychological dynamics behind what’s going on that are helpful to understand so we can be sure that no blame is apportioned. This isn’t about individual women being deliberately side-lined, nor about individual line-managers being particularly poor at some aspects of people management. Due to its nature, it’s likely to be a problem across an organisation, affecting the performance and needs addressing across an organisation. And let’s be very clear, just because you don’t see the issue doesn’t mean it’s not there – it means you’re not collecting the data and measuring it.
So, here’s the science bit. We know that one of the efficiencies developed in the human brain is to focus attention on what is important and to downgrade other sensory information that may distract from the task in hand. We also know that what is considered ‘important’ is built up partly through direct experience but mostly through received wisdom and the given norms of a specific culture. One result of this is that we expect the contribution and work of the gender that has always delivered the goods in the workplace to be the ones that we should look to. This ‘information’ is at the group level of gender, not at the individual level, yet our expectations of the group are applied to our expectations of individual members of that group. This is why we are more likely to automatically and subconsciously pay attention to the ‘abilities, qualities, or achievements’ of men in the workplace than women, as measured by the amount of feedback (both positive and negative) received.
The missing link: Feedback
The following 3 steps for line-managers and project leaders will start to embed a more equal communication of respect for employees’ contributions and bring with it the performance benefits of greater engagement and consistent developmental support:
- Build Fact-based Awareness
For one week monitor the feedback (formal, informal, ad hoc or planned) that you give, capturing the profile of who receives your feedback (e.g. gender, seniority, function); when they receive your feedback (e.g. in open or closed forums, verbal or written) types of feedback (positive, negative, constructive or not). Review your data at the end of the week. Is there a pattern? Who does well from you, where? And, in what way? Is there a group that loses out?
2. Change the habit
This is about forming new habits to ensure that all talent is engaged and motivated to continue to deliver their best work. So, in the second week deliberately look for and plan in opportunities to give feedback to the group or groups that you identified as losing the benefit of your respect in stage one. Create opportunities to give that feedback if you don’t provide the feedback that you could have in the moment.
3. Review and repeat
Creating new habits takes time and repetition and this habit required people to re-wire subconscious associations so progress will need to be monitored. What was the base line (in step 1) and what’s the target? What’s the cost of not making this progress?
For individual women the challenge is to ask for feedback, and do that habitually until line managers and other key stakeholders know that you expect it and will automatically give it. To have the best outcome against the overall goal of building respect, it’s important to ask ahead. This means letting the relevant person or people know that you’ll be looking for feedback at the end of the presentation / meeting / on delivery of an agreed output. The benefit of asking ahead is that the individual(s) will then have to pay attention to what you are doing and will have to think specifically about how you do it and what the impact is. If you also brief them to specific feedback on what you did well and how you could do better you gain the development opportunity that will also have been missing if this level of feedback is new.
Engagement is one of the key measures in The 2017 Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey (open from February 14th to March 7th). Order the report now to understand the engagement pinch-points and the strategic enablers of success in women’s development and progression.