Receiving feedback is one of the most effective tools for developing ourselves, and giving feedback is essential for developing others. When done well, it opens up a space of authenticity. But because our brains are imperfect information processors, it can also be messy. When we give feedback, we are sharing our perception of another person or their behavior… When we receive feedback, we are hearing the perception of others. With all that we have learned about the ways our brains work, one thing we know for sure is that perception is influenced by a lot of stuff that we are not always aware of, including biases. Bias can get in the way of success – for ourselves and for others. So how do we navigate the world of feedback mindfully?
Check your biases when giving feedback
When having developmental conversations, we advise leaders to consider the personality style and core values of the other person and adapt their approach to work well for the person they are seeking to influence, especially when that person’s style and values differ from their own. To be mindful of the presence of bias, consider how identity plays into the situation – what are the dimension of your own identity that are relevant? How about the person you are connecting with? In what ways are your experiences similar and how do they differ? Are there common unconscious stereotypes that may be present? For example, if you wish to bias-check the feedback you plan to share with a female co-worker, consider some of the common stereotypes that may have made their way into your perception. In a 2019 Harvard Business Review study, researchers found that the comment “too aggressive” was 3 times more likely to be found in the review of a female leader than in that of a male leader. The common stereotype that women are or should be warmer or more motherly may be one reason that assertive behavior was more likely to be called out as an issue.
Unconscious bias based on stereotypes can creep in and taint our perception – pay attention to the way your reactions to people and behaviors vary. If a strong tone of voice and commanding body language strikes you as “demonstrating passion” in one colleague but seems “angry and unyielding” in another – check into why your expectations of them are different. Perhaps there are other behaviors or a pattern over time that drives your perception, or perhaps there’s something else to check into.
It’s no fun to think that your perception of others might be impacted by bias – but the evidence is that we are all impacted in some way. Minimize the effect of bias in developmental feedback by taking the time to explore and describe the specific behavior you are observing, skill that needs to be developed, or outcome that needs to be achieved to ensure that the feedback you give is clear and actionable for the unique individual you seek to develop.
Help others navigate challenging feedback
In my career, I’ve often found myself struggling to help a member of my team navigate feedback that they’ve received that I felt was tinged with bias. When I hear that someone I care about and want to succeed has received feedback that seems problematic, it’s tough not to choose to immediately jump into action on their behalf. I care deeply about inclusion and equity, so it tweaks a strong value of mine – and to be fair, sometimes jumping into action is a misplaced impulse to “rescue” someone that simply serves my view of myself as a “good ally.” In a recent Unlocking Us podcast episode, executive coach and equity consultant Aiko Bethea walked host Brene Brown through a role play dealing with this scenario. They noted how critical it is to engage deeply enough to convey true empathy, and to allow the other person to decide how they want to proceed and what support they want from you.
At the same time, as a leader in an organization you have the opportunity – and responsibility – to address systemic issues that are hindering its success. As you experience patterns, look for ways to educate and build awareness in others, especially if you directly witness this taking place. Channel the desire to take action into creating systemic change and being an “active bystander,” as described in a recent New York Times article by Ruth Terry.
Receiving feedback mindfully
Finally, what if you are the one receiving the feedback that feels off? We often say that feedback is a gift, though I believe there may be some limits to that view – and even well intended feedback can sometimes be like that scratchy, frumpy sweater from Aunt Mabel – it doesn’t exactly seem to fit, and it says a lot more about Aunt Mabel’s taste than yours. But feedback is a piece of data about how someone you interact with perceives you, and that holds value – if that interaction is required to achieve your goals, then isn’t it better to know the story that they carry about you? It opens the door to a deeper conversation.
In her book, Inclusive Conversations, Mary Frances Winters describes two effective ways to address feedback that seems to carry bias. If the feedback is vague or associated with a stereotypical behavior, ask for the specifics you need to better understand their view, “Can you share a specific instance where I was aggressive? How might I have handled that differently?”. She also suggests an approach for challenging the interpretation, asking “Can we talk more about the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness? I would like to be effective and authentic and I don’t want characterizations such as these to impede my progress.”
How will you take what you’ve learned to help mitigate bias in receiving and giving feedback? What other tools do you use to help identify and limit bias in feedback?