How Biased Feedback Hurts Employee Growth—And How to Fix It
In today’s knowledge economy, it’s the people who drive the success of a company. Everything centers around the creativity and innovation of employees, which means that employee performance has never mattered more. But there are a number of ways that unconscious bias can hurt employees and diminish their ability to learn and grow.
There’s been an increasing awareness of unconscious bias in the context of discussions around diversity and inclusion. Companies have begun to identify the connection between diversity, inclusion, and performance. Diversity and inclusion are considered a competitive advantage by 78% of respondents surveyed in the 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report. In addition, the focus on inclusion has risen 32% in the past three years. Describing other findings from the report, Stacia Sherman Garr, Vice President at Bersin by Deloitte, explains, “Our research demonstrates that inclusive talent practices drive measurable and predictable business outcomes.”
This matters to the L&D professional, because fostering a workplace where employees are empowered and growing is critical to creating an inclusive culture, according to research from Deloitte. Key insights of the research show that, along with creating a sense of belonging and a safe, open environment, inclusive cultures give employees influence over job tasks and provide frequent stretch opportunities. Most importantly, in inclusive organizations, employees feel empowered to learn and grow.
There are a number of ways that companies are depriving employees of equal opportunities to stretch and advance in their careers. However, many companies don’t even realize they’re putting certain employees at a disadvantage. This is why it’s critical to understand how unconscious bias can impact the feedback employees receive. Here are 3 types of bias that can affect the employee feedback process, and ways to limit this bias and provide equal growth opportunities to everyone in your organization.
Research shows that the quality of feedback written about women vs. men differs significantly. It’s easy for gender bias to creep into feedback exchanges, which means that women end up with unequal access to high-quality feedback. Feedback that women receive tends to be more negative and subjective and based on their personality rather than their actual work. At Zugata we’ve seen this firsthand—we looked at data from our own customers and observed a gap between the frequency of work-based and personality-based feedback to men as opposed to women. In some cases, this gap was as large as 13%. I share more of the details of the research we conducted and what we learned from it here.
Halo and horn bias
The halo effect describes people’s tendency to believe that because someone excels in one area, they must excel in all areas. When people make this type of assumption, it means that they’re not considering each person’s traits on an individual basis. For example, a salesperson who always meets quota may get positive feedback even if they’re neglecting to mentor junior team members.
The opposite of the halo effect, the horn effect, occurs when a reviewer focuses on one negative attribute and neglects to consider all of someone’s positive traits.
Both the halo and horn effect are dangerous because they prevent people from getting actionable feedback and looking at the areas where they can improve. If an employee gets the message that everything they’re doing is great, it will be challenging for them to take any concrete actions as a result. On the other side of the coin, if they hear that they need to improve in every area, it will also be difficult to choose an area of focus or take any specific steps.
Confirmation bias refers to the fact that people are more likely to notice and remember information that confirms an opinion they already have (and they’re also more likely to forget or dismiss information that conflicts with their opinion). This can hurt employees because managers are likely to remember and highlight the points that validate their existing opinion, and this may not be an accurate reflection of an employee’s actual behavior or performance.
How to limit bias in the feedback process
Now that I’ve covered a few of the common ways that bias can prevent employees from getting good feedback (and therefore from being able to learn and grow to their maximum potential), let’s investigate a few of the ways that we can limit bias in the feedback process.
The first thing to point out is that education is a good first step, but education alone is not enough. As Udemy covered in the recent L&D Behavior Change Toolkit, it takes concerted effort in order to effect real behavior change among employees. In addition to the ongoing education and learning recommended by Udemy in the case study, you can limit bias by taking the following steps: using structured templates, tying feedback in to a tangible outcome, collecting feedback from a range of people, and putting a system in place to monitor your company’s feedback data.
1. Use structured templates
Structured templates are one of the best ways to ensure that everyone is giving and receiving feedback of a similar nature. Using a template can also ensure that feedback focuses on a tangible outcome and doesn’t simply criticize someone’s personality or offer empty praise.
2. Collect feedback from a range of people
Collecting feedback from a range of people has a number of benefits—it can reduce the likelihood of confirmation bias since it provides a broader range of data points. It gives all employees the ability to practice being on both ends of feedback conversations and reaffirms the idea that feedback is a critical part of your culture. And hopefully it inspires employees to look for further growth and development opportunities based on what they hear!
3. Create a system to monitor feedback data
Finally, putting a system in place to monitor your company’s feedback data can surface any disparity between how different employees are being reviewed. We offer this possibility with Zugata Insights, which you can learn more about here.
If you’re committed to the growth of your employees, it’s essential to even the playing field and try to give them equal opportunities to receive meaningful, actionable feedback. I hope the points I’ve outlined here will inspire you to look at areas where you could make improvements at your organization.
We explore the connection between inclusion, feedback, and employee growth in more depth in our eBook, Building Inclusive Cultures: A Guide to Limit Bias & Unlock Potential.
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