First Do No Harm: How to Develop Leaders Who Give Inclusive Feedback
Feedback has always been an essential part of a functioning team. More than just checking a team’s pulse, feedback helps leaders identify issues, encourage positive behavior, foster growth, and provide constructive criticism.
The modern workplace requires a nuanced approach to giving feedback. Whether it’s building a strong corporate foundation and culture, acknowledging individual experiences and identities, confronting and dismantling our own biases, focusing on inclusive feedback is not only necessary to achieve your company’s DEI goals, but also a fundamentally better way to engage and support your people on their growth journey.
How Bias Affects Reviews
Consider these common types of biases and how they influence reviews and performance ratings:
Halo/Horns Effect: It’s the tendency to let a good or bad trait dominate the feedback, which prevents us from seeing the person objectively. For example, when we allow pet peeves to matter more than valuable work or a charm to mask poor performance.
Leniency bias: Managers who give higher ratings to certain employees, even though they know they have clear room for improvement, often fall prey to leniency bias. For example, when leaders show a clear preference for those in their group while judging others more harshly.
Similarity bias: Similarity bias is the tendency to give more positive reviews to people with similar interests, skills, and backgrounds. As with leniency bias, this creates an immediate imbalance between those who share identities with their leaders and those who do not.
Confirmation bias: When we seek out or refashion information that confirms what we already believe, we exhibit confirmation bias. When it comes to dealing with people who are different from us, confirmation bias can cause us to discredit unfamiliar experiences and perspectives.
Whether we realize it or not, biased feedback has far-reaching effects on our teams and organizations, from promoting disengagement and feelings of alienation to high turnover rates.
Build an inclusive feedback framework
Employees crave feedback. Just as we can’t fix a problem we refuse to acknowledge, a team member can’t progress or grow without insight into their performance. This is true for all constructive feedback, but where non-inclusive feedback can end up being vague or unhelpful, inclusive feedback views each person as a unique whole.
It is important to give leaders a guiding framework for providing inclusive feedback. Here are some suggested frameworks offered by June Yoshinaru Davis, chief of staff for US programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:
- Who: Focus on the person you are providing feedback to, making sure to consider their individual identity, views and experiences. Check your assumptions and avoid hasty judgments based on stereotypes.
- What: Consider the context and intent of your feedback when preparing it, remembering that the goal is always to encourage your employee to improve.
- How, when and where: Be deliberate and considerate in delivering your feedback, including determining the right time and place to provide it.
- Why: Inclusiveness considerations are particularly important when considering why you provide feedback. Be aware of the type of feedback you give and why. And check with yourself to make sure you’re not letting unconscious bias color your comments.
Once the framework is set, ask your leaders to apply these principles along the way:
Tackle the problem, not the person. Stereotypes and unconscious biases affect how we perceive those who are different from us without our knowledge. For example, research has shown that people perceive women to talk much more often than they actually do.
Because of such assumptions, it is important to separate the person and their identity from the real problem. Not only will this help leaders avoid making unnecessary and incorrect assumptions, but it will turn problem solving into collaboration rather than one-sided criticism.
Understand the other person’s point of view. Miscommunication happens, especially when we consider different cultures, identities, and perspectives. For example, someone may speak less in meetings because they are neurodiverse and process information differently. Or an employee from a different culture may not interpret social cues the same way as their colleagues.
These differences make it important for leaders to consider perspective when providing feedback. They should be willing to ask questions when things are unclear and be open to the possibility that they are missing something or misinterpreting events.
Learn to provide feedback through an inclusive lens
Developing leaders who give inclusive feedback to employees of all backgrounds requires developing soft skills, such as a growth mindset, compassion, and active listening. It also means developing other diversity, equity and inclusion skills that help them better appreciate all lived experiences, become active allies and dismantle natural biases.
Like the foundation under a well-built home, inclusive feedback requires an overall culture of inclusion. For today’s workplace, this means creating environments that value psychological safety, encourage authenticity, have a strong awareness of cultural context, and welcome open communication.
In workplaces that embody these characteristics, employees feel comfortable putting themselves fully into work and don’t feel pressured to hide aspects of their identity. And when issues arise, they feel safe to speak up and are more comfortable hearing feedback. The result is an environment in which everyone feels valued and included and has sufficient and fair room for growth.