Diversity & Inclusion

Protective Hesitation: Failure in Feedback

Protective hesitation may be a relatively new term for many, but it is certainly not a new concept in the workplace.

What Is It and What Is Being Protected?

Protective hesitation is when leaders don’t provide clear, consistent feedback to women and ethnically diverse staff because they’re worried about the recipients’ response or how they themselves could be perceived. The problem is that the practice is not protective but rather prohibits professional career development for staffers who need guidance the most.


When looking at gender specifically, men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level. Women are more likely to receive vague feedback, regardless of whether the feedback is positive or constructive. In fact, only 12% of women report being satisfied with the quality of the feedback they receive. Vague feedback is harmful to women because it’s also correlated with lower performance-review ratings for women but not for men. It is hard to improve upon something you are not aware of.

Additionally, the Center for Talent Innovation reports that professionals of color are much less likely to receive feedback than their Caucasian counterparts—and even when they do, they’re unclear about how to act on it.

All of this can create exclusive workplaces that are toxic, unhealthy, and stressful, often leading to decreased diverse representation and innovation and increased turnover.

If we want to be the change we want to see in the world, then organizations—starting with leaders—should follow these steps to help combat and hopefully eliminate protective hesitation.

Laser Focus on ‘Feedback for All’ Culture
When we view workplace culture with an intersectional lens, black women are more likely than white women to be treated unfairly in promotions and training, to be discriminated against in advancement opportunities, and to experience a far greater sense of frustration and disengagement.

Ethnically diverse women are often held to a much higher standard than their white and male peers and presumed to be less qualified despite their credentials, work product, or business results.

In fact, a 2-year study at Google found that “feeling secure enough to contribute was the most common feature, by far, of high-performing teams. The very nature of innovation requires employees to suggest half-formed ideas, take risks or propose solutions that may not have data to inform them. And that can happen only in an environment in which employees feel secure and safe.”

The workplace culture must promote, celebrate, and elevate feedback for the gift that it is—for all workers. Feedback loops should be ongoing and not purely for performance reviews.

Dare to Lead

“Daring leadership is ultimately about serving others, not ourselves.”—Brene Brown

Effective leaders must go outside of comfort zones to provide meaningful coaching. As Professor Susan Stehlik from the NYU Stern School of Business noted, “Who do you give the most helpful feedback to? Those like you? Those already in your inner circle? Executives have the greatest challenges giving feedback to diverse candidates coming up the line. White males are good at talking to and advising other white males—but are afraid when it comes to giving candid feedback to women or people of color.”

Most organizations want to create an inclusive culture because it results in increased innovation, performance, and revenue. It is also the right thing to do from a corporate responsibility perspective. To create a truly equitable and supportive work environment, it must always start with senior leaders. The people at the top set the tone, walk the walk, and talk the talk for other levels of the organization to follow their lead.

The process also starts at the individual level; rather than asking “Is there bias?” people should ask themselves “Where is there bias?” How can I increase my self-awareness and disrupt my own bias when providing feedback, assigning opportunities, and making promotion decisions?

Fortune magazine noted, “Everyone has unconscious bias. In today’s workplace, it is time for everyone to stop tiptoeing around the issue…. Working to move your business beyond bias is critical to advancing workplace equality—and a more inclusive workforce is more innovative, better understands its customers, and outperforms the competition.”

Giving a Voice to What Needs to Be Voiced

We need to be honest about why we are not having these conversations in the workplace. As Stehlik observes, “Most often, the reason people avoid these conversations is you don’t have a real, authentic relationship with that person. You make incorrect assumptions about others, about their abilities and motivations, if you don’t enter into an open conversation with the people who aren’t like you.”

The best way to change things is to name them and openly discuss them, giving a voice to what needs to be voiced. We need to start becoming comfortable with speaking up, speaking out, and taking action.

Host feedback sessions for leaders, and ensure they have the necessary tools to carry out and provide consistent, valuable feedback to all of their employees. We need to become comfortable giving and receiving feedback. A failure to provide honest feedback is not protective—it is a professional handicap.

Make It Dynamic
“Learning to receive feedback from each other is what feedback is all about.” —Sheila Heen

At the group level, leaders should come together for calibration sessions to calibrate performance reviews so everyone is assigning the same meaning and same tier of performance to specific behaviors. The goal is to align behaviors and performance at the organizational level rather than at the leader level to remove bias and enhance overall performance.

The impact of this can be seen not just at review time. Leveraging this can positively impact day-to-day feedback for immediate results.

Feedback Is a Gift We Must Give
Feedback is invaluable and can help everyone improve if applied consistently for all workers. It is a disservice to marginalize women, ethnically diverse professionals, or any other group under the guise of “protection.”

Anu Mandapati is the Vice President of Inclusion at Talking Talent. She is also a leadership, team, and well-being coach with 20 years of diversity, inclusion, leadership, and organizational development experience. Mandapati specializes in coaching teams and organizations to increase their diverse talent pool, develop more inclusive staff at all levels, and increase performance and retention by creating work cultures where people feel like they can bring all of who they are to work and succeed. Her leadership tips, tools, and strategies have appeared in various publications, including Inc., Forbes, Fortune, and Money.