Most of the time it's great to hear positive feedback at work. But there's one obvious exception: when the praise is a white lie. While being told your work needs improvement isn't fun, at least if you know where you're falling short you can strive to improve. If no one tells you you're underperforming, you'll continue on blissfully ignorant right up to the day you get fired.
Why being nicer to women is actually a problem
The study focused on performance reviews specifically. This annual office ritual has already gotten plenty of attention from academics, with multiple studies finding that most reviews are polite, pleasant, and utterly useless. Reviews are generally a waste of time for everybody, but the research team behind this latest study wanted to know, is the situation even worse for female employees?
They designed a series of experiments to figure out if gender affects how bosses offer feedback. For instance, in one they asked 66 volunteers to read two equally mediocre essays and offer feedback. When participants were told one was written by "Sarah" and the other was written by "Andrew," they offered more polite, positive, and dishonest feedback on the essay they believed was written by a woman.
When the researchers informed the participants they were telling the female writer more white lies, the subjects claimed to be unaware of the difference. Which means that chances are excellent you are offering less useful feedback to your female employees and don't know it.
"Such 'benevolent sexism' is not helpful," sums up the British Psychological Society Research Digest's writeup of the study. "Though on the surface a kinder performance evaluation may seem positive, it may be holding women back, failing to explain how they could improve at work."
Time to ditch the performance review?
How do you fix the problem? Simply being aware that managers have a tendency to go easier on female staff may help you correct for the problem. Reading up on how to offer negative feedback in a firm but kind way could also help.
But perhaps the most effective solution is also the most radical -- ditch performance reviews entirely in favor of more regular, informal feedback. Not only is that likely to be more helpful to all your employees, but it also removes one big opportunity for well-meaning bosses to inadvertently shortchange their female staff.