The science behind being cruel to be kind

New research by London Business School has found that feedback is another gendered element in the workplace, reports Ellen Buchan

The study, A Bias Toward Kindness Goals in Performance Feedback to Women (vs Men), was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and undertaken by Aneeta Rattan, associate professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. Rattan carried out the work in collaboration with Lily Jampol, a partner and head of people science and services at ReadySet and Elizabeth Baily Wolf, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Insead.

According to the study, kindness is prioritised when giving feedback to women over men – meaning that women receive less actionable feedback. Women are perceived as being warmer than men and so people are kinder and more sympathetic towards them when giving feedback. 

A total of 1,500 MBA students, full-time employees and managers based in the US and UK participated in the paper’s principal study. The researchers then analysed real-world feedback analysed from close to 5,000 supervisors, mentors, peers and subordinates relating to jobs held by a cohort of international MBA students before their degree. The researchers found that, on average, the feedback given to women was more positive both in tone and content than the feedback given to men.

According to Rattan and her co-authors, “inaccurate, unhelpful, or unclear feedback (even when motivated by the desire to be kind) can end up obscuring critical growth opportunities and cause women to be less likely to get important job assignments, raises or promotions.

“At the same time, a lack of kindness in feedback given to men may inhibit their growth, harm their wellbeing and contribute to a workplace culture imbued with toxic gender norms.” The authors believe that managers should ensure that feedback is both fact-based and kind at the same time – no matter to whom they are speaking.

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