Unbiased Feedback: Why It Matters

Catherine Daly

7 minutes

What is Unbiased Feedback?

In a perfect world, our feedback would always be objective, balanced, and fair. But the world is not perfect, and our criticism of others is often influenced in ways we don’t realize.

Our biases lead us to categorize, compare, and make assumptions that reinforce our own—often unintentional—favoritisms, preconceptions, and prejudices, as well as common stereotypes. These conscious and unconscious biases create judgment errors and affect the feedback we give and receive in every part of our lives.

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How Biased Feedback Harms Personal Development

Unbiased feedback is fair, just, objective, and constructive criticism and advice about individual or team performance. Also, unbiased feedback is delivered free of prejudice and simply gives people the guidance they need to improve, do their best work, and succeed in their careers.

Sounds straightforward, right? Why would anyone ever deliver anything other than unbiased feedback?

The truth is that humans are intrinsically biased. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman demonstrated this in his studies on economic theory. He discovered that the majority of human decisions are not based on facts or logic. Instead, they are based on biases, beliefs, and intuition. Bringing awareness to these biases helps us challenge them and work toward delivering more constructive, unbiased feedback to everyone.

Prove it again
Some groups have to prove themselves more than others do.
Tightrope
A narrower range of behaviors is accepted from some groups than from others
Maternal wall
Women with children see their commitment and competence questioned or face disapproval for being too career focused.
Tug-of-war
Disadvantaged groups find themselves pitted against one another because of differing strategies for assimilating—or refusing to do so.
There are many types of bias that contribute to these scenarios and affect feedback in the workplace. Some examples include:
1

Recency bias

Also known as the “what have you done for me lately?” bias, recency bias is the tendency to focus on the most recent time period instead of the total time period being evaluated.

It is common in the workplace as busy leaders tend to gauge performance based on the most recent experience with an employee. It leads to the common workplace mantra, “you’re only as good as your last X.” The X might be sale, presentation, campaign, report, and so on.

2

Similar-to-me bias

We tend to like people who are like us. This makes fair, unbiased feedback difficult as a “similar-to-me” bias often leads managers to rate people with similar interests, skills, and backgrounds higher than people who are different from them. Similar-to-me bias is more common than you’d imagine and can negatively affect everything from workplace inclusivity to diversity hiring initiatives.

3

Centrality and leniency bias

Centrality and leniency biases are similar and equally common in the workplace. Centrality bias is the tendency to rate most employees as average, whereas leniency bias occurs when managers give good ratings across the board even though they have employees with notable room for improvement.

These biases weaken the objectivity of the feedback. The truth is, some employees do outperform others. Giving everyone a 4 out of a 5-point rating scale makes it challenging to distinguish who the truly top-performing employees are and makes it difficult to identify who deserves a promotion or raise versus who doesn’t.

4

Gender bias

It is a fact that people—men and women alike—tend to focus more on the personality and attitudes of women and feminine-presenting individuals when delivering feedback. Conversely, they focus more on the behaviors and accomplishments of men and masculine-presenting individuals.

In one study, 76 percent of critical feedback given to women included comments on her personality (e.g., a woman was “abrasive”) while only 2 percent of negative reviews for men included similar comments.

Gender biases severely affect growth and promotion opportunities and the gender pay gap.

5

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. This is a common human tendency that makes it easier for us to trust people and information that aligns with our values and beliefs and harder to trust those that don’t.

Confirmation bias can run deep inside our subconscious and can skew our interpretation of valuable performance data—thus making it difficult to deliver unbiased feedback.

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Ways to Deliver Unbiased Feedback

Each year, progressive companies around the world spend millions on anti-bias training. The goal is to create workforces that are more inclusive—and consequently more committed and better at making decisions and solving problems.

Committed employees are often engaged as well. And engagement affects your organization’s performance.

These training programs aim to root out bias, create self-awareness among leaders, and adjust cultural norms to accommodate a more diverse workplace. Sometimes, however, these programs fail to deliver the practical tips leaders can implement to deliver unbiased feedback in their day-to-day roles.

We’ve compiled five ways to deliver unbiased feedback to help people become fairer, more inclusive leaders:

1

When in doubt, get a second (and third and fourth and one-thousandth) opinion

No individual—including you as a manager—should have a disproportionate influence over an overall performance review. To eliminate individual bias, seek input from multiple sources. Confidential, measured—but not gossipy—input from other managers and peers can help significantly reduce bias in performance feedback.
2

Structure, structure, structure

Unstructured feedback is a breeding ground for bias. Without structured criteria, you’ll inevitably reshape the success criteria in your own image.

Yale researchers found that when you define the criteria used in an assessment before you make an evaluation, you are less likely to rely on stereotypes, and your assessments are less biased.

So, while it’s important to consider qualitative feedback, Stanford researchers confirmed that open boxes on feedback forms leave feedback wide open to bias. When you’re organizing your “open box” feedback, focus specifically on situations, behaviors, and impacts—not on personalities. The whole idea of feedback is to guide someone to change something. It’s almost impossible to change your personality.

3

Challenge yourself to question everything you know

This is a difficult one. It requires you to think like a scientist—seeking to disconfirm rather than confirm your initial hypothesis.

When you gather feedback from others, pay close attention to the feedback that goes against your beliefs and acknowledge it alongside the feedback that aligns with your worldview. You’ll be surprised how much the scales can move when you consider feedback from a diverse audience.

4

Document feedback regularly, not just at annual review time

Stuff happens in life. Employees are not always on their A-game. And if a star employee falls off their game right before review time, it’s unfair to rate them on their current rather than their overall performance.

Develop a habit of documenting feedback on your employees at different points in time throughout the year. This combats the sneaky effects of recency bias we described earlier in this blog post.

5

Deliver specific advice on how employees can improve

Women and people of color are less likely to receive guidance on how to act on the feedback they receive. Be specific about the situations, behaviors, and impacts you want people to change. If you leave it to guesswork, you’re setting people up for failure.

Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, distinguishes between giving someone the truth (which implies that you know the truth and the person you’re telling it to does not) and giving them candor (which implies you’re giving someone honest feedback and you want them to succeed).

In this short video, Kim shares how the best managers give their people a lot of praise and a little bit of criticism every week. More importantly, she advises that praise should be specific and sincere, and criticism should be kind and clear.

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Using Collective Intelligence to Disrupt Bias

Unconscious bias stems from a variety of shortcuts our individual brains take to make life easier. And although bias is almost impossible to eliminate, it is easy to interrupt through collective intelligence.

At ThoughtExchange, we refer to this paradigm shift as going from loud leadership to crowd leadership.

This means making the shift from empowering one leader with a voice, direction, and strong decision-making skills, to empowering leaders that can activate crowds of people, tap into their collective intelligence, and build stronger organizations.

If you’re interested in learning how to unlock the power of collective intelligence in your organization to disrupt bias and create a culture of unbiased feedback, get in touch with us.

About the Author

Catherine Daly

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Catherine is a professional writer based in Vancouver, B.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism (for passion), a master’s degree in marketing (to pay the bills), and has over 15 years of experience working with big tech brands like Adobe, Hootsuite, HP, Oracle, PayPal, and ThoughtExchange.