We often tell small lies, or say things that aren't exactly true because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings. We learn this behavior at a very young age when we're told, say, to compliment an aunt on her terrible cooking. We carry this into adulthood, and it turns out, we continue to tell white lies to women--even in their performance reviews.

In a recent study, participants read mediocre essays and evaluated them. If they believed a woman wrote a particular essay (Sarah), they gave nicer feedback than if they thought a man (Andrew) wrote it. They were more likely to tell white lies to Sarah than they were to Andrew.

This may sound like they are trying to help women by being positive and nice, but the effect is the opposite. Women can't improve if bosses don't tell them what they need to change.

Now, of course, we can't extrapolate a laboratory experiment to workplaces all over the world, but it's definitely something managers should think about. Are you too nice to women when you give them feedback?

Your white lies can hold someone back. She walks away thinking she's doing a great job, but there are a lot of things she needs to work on. A man who received harsher feedback may get promoted over her, and it makes it look like gender discrimination. It's not a good situation for anyone involved

When you give feedback to an employee, make sure it meets the following criteria:

  • It is accurate. Don't say that it was an excellent presentation if it was a terrible one. Don't say "This is perfect" and then spend three hours fixing it up before sending it out. 
  • It has been flip-tested. If you wouldn't find yourself saying that phrase to a man, then why is it in a woman's performance review? The flip side is also true--if you wouldn't say it to a woman, why are you saying it to a man?
  • It is nice but honest. "Thank you so much for getting this done by the deadline. Unfortunately, you used the wrong dataset, and so I had to re-do everything" is much better feedback than just the first sentence. If you don't correct, the employee will do the same thing wrong the next time.
  • It addresses actionable items only. If there isn't a way to fix it, then don't bother. Think of it as the old etiquette rule that you tell someone if they have spinach in their teeth because they can fix it, but you don't mention a stain on their shirt, because there is no way to fix that at the moment. You correct grammar today because the person will be writing another document tomorrow. But, if you can't say what you want to be different, let it go.
  • It is designed to help the employee grow. Most people want to progress, and they need a mentor to help them do that. Be that mentor for your employees.

There's no need to be rude, but there is a need to be honest. White lies don't protect the person hearing them--they protect the person telling them. That person is avoiding a harsh reality.

Now, I'm not advocating that you tell your aunt her cooking is terrible, but I am advocating that you do not praise it in a way that leads her to make you that special dish each time. You can, as a manager, certainly, let things go. But don't lie about it. It isn't helpful