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Women and Criticism

female-criticsmOn this blog, I often discuss immature and mature ways to deal with criticism.  The advice that I offer is designed to be helpful to males and females alike.  But this week, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Tara Mohr argues that when it comes to criticism, women can benefit from advice specifically targeted to the unique cultural situation that they find themselves in.

 

The New York Times Article

New York TimeMs Mohr, in her thoughtful article titled “Learning to Love Criticism,” tells us:

Criticism stings for all of us, but women have been socialized to not rock the boat, to be, above all else, likable. By the time a girl reaches adolescence, she’ll most likely have watched hundreds of films, television shows and advertisements in which a woman’s destiny is determined not by her own choices but by how she is perceived by others. In those hundreds of stories, we get the message: What other people think and say about us matters, a lot.

In addition to these messages in the media, for centuries women have had less rights than men.  Being likable, or at least acceptable to stronger, more powerful men, became a primary survival strategy. For many women around the world, this is still the reality.

Given this history, we might think that women have mastered the skills to insure that they are liked, but in the business world there is some evidence that problems exist.

A Recent Survey

women and bosses 1In a recent survey that looked at 248 performance reviews from 28 different companies, both men and women gave more negative feedback to the women being reviewed.  Here are a few examples:

“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

“Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”

“The presentation ultimately went well. But along the way, we discovered many areas for improvement. You would have had an easier time if you had been less judgmental about R—‘s contributions from the beginning.”

This kind of negative criticism showed up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It showed up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

performance-reviews-graphic1

There are three possibilities that present themselves here:

1. The women received more negative criticism despite not acting in any distinctively different way than the men because of distinctively different expectations of how women “should” act;

2. The women who received more negative reviews actually acted distinctly different in certain ways than the men and it is these differences that led to the additional negative criticism;

3. It is a little of both.

An Informal Survey

woman bossInterestingly, from my perspective, are the results of an informal survey of someone I know who was intimately involved in evaluating and promoting personnel.  Here, early criticism was about equal between men and women, but more women took the negative criticism they received to heart and made changes prior to their following evaluation. This ultimately led to their promotions.  The majority of the men who got negative feedback seemed uninterested in making any changes and subsequently lost their opportunity for promotion.

Women boss at workFrom this, I think that it is not only possible, but perhaps even probable, that despite the pattern suggested in the more thorough survey, there is great variability across settings.

Some bosses may have an archtype that a great leader is a tough, no nonsense person who only projects a demanding sense of profits.  Such an attitude will provoke a very different style of criticism around the office than one that supports the idea working for profits doesn’t have to mean that we must abandon basic principles of human dignity.

Let me just add that the person involved in providing and promoting personnel in the informal survey happened to be a master at providing very specific feedback.  Consider the example provided above in which someone stated in a review:

“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

Such a statement potentially can be helpful as one looks within and seeks to come up with a less abrasive way to respond in situations.  However, the feedback would be far better if a supervisor, let’s call him Bill, invited a subordinate, let’s call her Mary, to a one-on-one meeting shortly after an abrasive incident occurred.  At that meeting, Bill does several things.  He gently explains that he is about to imitate how Mary had acted, using her tone of voice and what was said.  Then, after imitating for her how she acted, he displays for her in a role-play how he would prefer she act when a similar incident arises.  He then proceeds to ask Mary to imitate what he just acted out.  Then he goes through this process with Mary until she can actually copy the less abrasive style to his satisfaction.  If Bill provided this level of specific feedback, it would be potentially far more helpful then the two-sentence feedback that was actually provided.

Advice

woman boss blackI very much support the recommendations that Ms Mohr provides in her New York Times piece.  For example, at one point she writes,

If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized — with comments not just about her work but also about herself. She must develop a way of experiencing criticism that allows her to persevere in the face of it. 

How can this be done?  “A woman,” says Ms Mohr, “can identify another woman whose response to criticism she admires. In challenging situations, she can imagine how the admired woman might respond, and thereby see some new possible responses for herself.”

I won’t go into all of the recommendations of Ms Mohr, suffice it to say her article is well worth reading.  But I do think it is essential to point out that a single article will not do the trick for most of us, women or men, who want to learn to become a master at dealing with criticism.  It takes several months of regularly bringing before our minds examples of criticism, followed by a discussion of how to transform each specific example into something better.  My blog provides one way to go about doing just this.  Readers can begin with the introduction to this blog, and move forward at their own pace by clicking on the next newer entry post. Additionally, by reading the trilogy of novels that I’ve written, people become immersed for a few months in adventures that illustrate the struggle to seek respect even under the most trying circumstances.

Well, that’s my post for this week.  Before ending, I can’t help commenting that it is not even October yet and Mother Nature has already begun doing some extraordinary work with her paintbrush up here in the beautiful Finger Lakes Region.

Wishing you all a delightfully colorful autumn,

Jeff

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

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