Are women more sensitive than men about getting feedback?

I had a conversation last week with Alice, a newly appointed Head of Corporate Communications for a public sector organisation. Alice is an amazing mother of 2 young girls and now works full-time, having taken time off to have a family. She has recently been promoted to this demanding role, working closely with the CEO and managing 25 staff. This blog talks about her experience when she interviewed for this role and her hints and tips on how to give and, most importantly, how to receive feedback.

Alice had been preparing for this interview for a long time. She was in a comfortable space as she knew most of the people interviewing her but there was still a lot at stake and she knew she was up against a couple of other internal candidates who were men. It was the first opportunity of a promotion after having a family and taking time off so she admits she needed an extra dose of confidence!

On a day-to-day basis she rarely faces any confidence problems, and is naturally a high performer. However, when it came to preparing for this interview, she was worried as she had done badly in a previous interview. She therefore put things in place to ensure she was as prepared as possible. This included working with a leadership coach and taking part in a course about how to present with confidence. She knew all the interviewers very well – one was her boss – and this actually made it worse as she was not used to having to talk about her performance, only demonstrating it in practice. She also added that it was the time of the month, and so her hormones did not help much!  She says “Whilst I am a really confident person, it is slightly alien to have to justify myself in one hour with such a lot at stake”.

The interview came and went and she felt she did quite well and was, as you can imagine, very relieved once it was over. She found out within the next two hours that she had got the job. So, you might be thinking, what is the point of telling you all of this? Well, with this feeling of relief after the interview and the adrenalin pumping around her body, the last thing she was expecting to be told by her boss (in the same sentence as ‘you have got the job’) was ‘You need to work on your interview technique’. This feedback hit Alice like a bolt of lightning and it hurt. Whilst she realised she probably could have done better with her interview technique (couldn’t we all?), the last thing she needed at that moment was some feedback like that. It knocked her confidence so much she has not yet had the inclination to talk to her boss about it and is now filled with dread about the next interview she has to do. On reflection, she realises that the reason it hurt so much was that there was no space between hearing the good news of the promotion and the feedback. She left the office that day feeling like crying rather than a feeling of satisfaction and joy at getting the promotion that she so desperately wanted. 

So, the point of this blog is to take the learning from this and offer advice to those who either have to give feedback or receive it.

Tips for giving feedback

  • Do it regularly and light touch
  • Ask how your colleague(s) like to receive feedback
  • Start with positive feedback and then use very specific constructive feedback for any negative issues and focus on positive ways to overcome any challenges they might be facing
  • Don’t assume you have the only answer – ask someone else to help if you think they would be better at giving the feedback in a different context/environment
  • Make all feedback as specific as possible
  • Find out when an appropriate time would be for the person to reflect on their performance (ie if they’re a woman, they may prefer to choose a time in their cycle when they know they will be less hormonal, for example!)
  • Some people really thrive and are motivated by positive feedback. If you’re managing someone like this, it is really important to give them regular positive feedback (a bit like you would do with a child to encourage positive behaviour!) as well as talking about things they need to improve on. 
  • Ask the person how they feel at the end of a performance feedback session.

Tips for receiving feedback

  • Invite feedback when you’re in a stable place and pick your moment; Do this regularly and have a forum for it.
  • Explain how you like feedback to be given ie if you are someone that needs regular positive affirmations, tell your boss/colleague.
  • Prepare some open ended questions that could elicit constructive feedback ie What were the positive things that you think I could repeat next time? What specifically could I improve on?
  • Try to understand a little about the science behind how your emotional reactions are triggered. A primary goal of our brain is to predict where and how we can avoid threats and encounter rewards. If you are someone who doesn’t respond to criticism then it is worth reading up a little on this. This is an article worth checking out.
  • Schedule a performance review meeting when you know you’ll be in a good place (ie for a woman who has a monthly cycle and is affected by how you feel, try to schedule the meeting when you’ll be in a positive frame of mind.)
  • Remember that the person giving feedback generally wants you to do well, which is why they’re giving you the feedback in the first place.

Alice’s biggest learning from this is about being resilient and knowing what to do to recover from a situation like she faced after her interview. She went out to celebrate, even though she didn’t really feel like it.  She slept on it. She knew she didn’t want to have a conversation with her boss there and then as she felt too vulnerable, but she was aware she needed to create the circumstance where she could talk to him. She has put this down to experience and wants to help others by explaining that it wasn’t plain sailing and that she did have confidence issues.

She concludes “After all, it didn’t kill me and it has made me more confident as a result. If you sail through your career, without pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and don’t elicit feedback, you won’t be a great leader."

If any of this resonates with you and you would like any advice on pre-interview techniques or presentation skills, do contact us on or contact us via our website


Joy Burnford