Overcoming Bias to Give Better Feedback

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A growing body of research makes it increasingly clear that companies with more diverse teams perform better. For countless organisations, it’s a priority to increase the gender and racial diversity of senior leaders and executives. A major part of this effort entails understanding and addressing forms of bias. And one of the most challenging forms of bias to grapple with is implicit, or inherent, bias—that is, the unconscious and relatively automatic forms of prejudiced judgment and social behaviour.

In this blog, we recently reviewed the critical role that thoughtful, constructive feedback plays in fostering successful careers. So, it’s worth taking a closer look at how implicit bias can find its way into the way we give feedback—and how we can work to prevent this from happening.

A Failure of Feedback

“Who do you give the most helpful feedback to? Those like you? Those already in your inner circle?” asks Professor Susan Stehlik, from the NYU Stern School of Business. “Executives have the greatest challenges giving feedback to diversity 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 colour.”

The research strongly supports Stehlik’s position. Women have been foundless likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, while men receive more specific guidance of what is needed to get them to the next level of seniority with their organisation. In fact, only 12% of women report being satisfied with the quality of the feedback they receive. Additionally, the Center for Talent Innovation reports that professionals of colour are much less likely to receive feedback than their Caucasian counterparts—and even when they do, they’re unclear as to how to act on it, particularly if they were born outside the U.S.

Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone

Why is it so hard to give truly direct feedback to those who we don’t relate to, or who come from a different background? It can be uncomfortable to speak openly and honestly across a difference of gender, race, or even age. Harvard Business School’s Professor David A. Thomas defined this behaviour as “protective hesitation”—the failure to give feedback due to fear of being perceived as racist or sexist.

So how can executives prevent this fear from affecting their behaviour—and hampering opportunities for high-potentials of all genders, races, and ethnicities to succeed? Professor 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.”

These kinds of open, authentic relationships—combined with a clear, specific set of evaluation criteria and a systematic effort to tie feedback to business goals and outcomes—are key to facilitating equal access to leadership.


This piece originally appeared on The Economist’s Executive Education blog here. It’s author, Laura Montgomery, is a higher-education expert who blogs for The Economist Careers Network.

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