Emotional Intelligence at Work: How Men and Women Interpret Feedback Differently

Knowing the differences can help you develop a personal strategy.

CREDIT: Getty Images

CREDIT: Getty Images

How do you respond to feedback?

A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review sheds some insight into different ways men and women react to the input of their peers. It was conducted by Margarita Mayo, Professor of Leadership at IE Business School in Madrid.

“Research has examined the short-term effects of peer feedback, but little is still known about how long these responses last,” said Mayo. “Because receiving feedback from peers calls into question our self-perceptions, it is not unreasonable to expect that some of us will develop psychological defense mechanisms.”

“In other words, receiving feedback involves some emotional fallout that may block the very same learning processes they are intended to boost.”
The Study

Mayo and her team put that theory to test by investigating how her students reacted to peer feedback about their leadership competencies. The study involved 221 students, 169 males and 52 females, with an average age of 30 and 6.5 years of previous work experience. The students were put into teams that worked together every day, giving them the chance to see one another in action and get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

At the end of each trimester, students were asked to complete an online survey asking them to rate themselves and fellow team members using a 5-point response format (1 = completely disagree to 5 = completely agree) on the following four attributes:

shows confidence when facing unforeseen situations
knows when to work and when to relax
doesn’t feel stressed or frustrated when doing several tasks at the same time
actively seeks the opinions of others

The week following completion of each survey, students received the results. They could clearly compare their self-rating on the four competencies to the average rating from their teammates.

According to Mayo, all the students initially rated themselves higher than their peers. But over time, self-ratings declined in response to receiving feedback.

“Feedback from others leads us to compare others’ ratings with our own self-evaluations,” said Mayo. “This comparison triggers reflection about ourselves and a readjustment of our own inflated views so as to align them with the more realistic evaluation of others.”

But was there a noticeable difference between how women and men reacted?
How Men and Women Differed

In essence, women were much more sensitive to peer feedback than their male counterparts.

Mayo explains:

We found that women more quickly aligned their self-awareness with peer feedback, whereas men continued to rationalize and inflate their self-image over time…After six months, women perfectly aligned their views of leadership with their peers’ assessment.

In contrast, men continued to inflate their leadership qualities. For example, for self-confidence the pattern was quite different for men than it was for women. For men, it was 3.99 (self-rating) vs. 3.70 (peer rating) in January; 3.92 vs. 3.64 in April; and 3.84 vs. 3.64 in June. These results suggest that women close the gap between self-perception and peer feedback faster than men, demonstrating greater sensitivity to social cues.

Of course, the sample size of this study is small. And as an individual, you may respond much differently than other men and women. Still, the insights gleaned from this study can help you to design an effective strategy for taking feedback into account.

How so?
How Emotional Intelligence Helps

Emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) involves the ability to identify emotions and their influence, and then use that information to guide your decision making. Sharpening your EQ can be useful in applying research like this to your personal situation.

For example, let’s say you are greatly influenced by peer feedback, like the women in the study. This is a strength you can take advantage of. For example, actively seeking feedback will allow you to identify opportunities in which you can maximize use of your stronger attributes and minimize the weaker ones.

On the other hand, identifying the role another person’s emotions plays in giving that feedback may help you adjust your reaction. Perhaps they are being hard on you because they have trouble accepting constructive criticism–criticism that you gave (and they desperately needed).

In that case, their feedback can still help you determine if an adjustment in your delivery style is necessary. But you shouldn’t let your ability to empathize discourage you from taking on new challenges.

What if you overestimate your leadership abilities in comparison with your peers, like the men in the study? Maintaining a positive view in the midst of negativity can give leaders the courage and fortitude they need to move forward. (After all, at times the lone voice is the right one–regardless of what traditional leadership attributes that person possesses.)

However, recognizing others’ perspectives will keep you from overestimating your influence in a given situation. And those outside viewpoints can help you identify blind spots–and work to improve them.

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