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Why You Should Take Feedback Bias Seriously & How to Overcome It
September 16, 2022
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Feedback bias happens when personal experiences and attitudes towards the employee we're reviewing are shaping the feedback instead of objective and measurable facts.
There's a widespread problem with the language used in performance reviews — unconscious bias. Beliefs take over concrete facts and silently translate into the choice of words we use to deliver employee feedback.
This performance review bias severely impacts employees' careers — feedback recipients may be pigeon-holed, unfairly passed over for promotions, or even let go.
So, what can we do to tackle this sensitive and critical diversity topic?
It may be cliché but acknowledging the problem is the first step in the battle against feedback bias. And there's plenty to do after that!
Address feedback bias by understanding its root causes and start taking action with our 5 tips for overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace.
⚠️ What is performance review or feedback bias?
Implicit bias in the performance review process comes from cognitive biases and workplace stereotypes. The latter is the idea that an employee is better or worse at their job based on age, gender, race, disabilities, or personality type.
Not only is this offensive, but it also matters because employees depend on valuable feedback to develop in the workplace and become top performers.
But how can your employees develop if your feedback reflects your biases or misconceptions?
In fact, is biased feedback actionable at all?
When feedback is unactionable, it's significantly more complicated for employees to grow or achieve a leadership promotion.
Bias is most likely to rear its ugly head during downward feedback (from manager to direct report) as it only takes a single person's viewpoint into account.
A better alternative? Try 360-degree feedback, which seeks opinions from multiple peers to provide a well-rounded performance appraisal.
Textio's research on "Language Bias in Performance Feedback" reveals the following occurrence rates of unactionable feedback in every 1,000 words of a performance evaluation.
- Women have 1.4 occurrences of unactionable feedback compared to 0.8 occurrences with men.
- People aged 40+ have 1.3 occurrences compared to 0.8 in those aged 18 to 39.
- Black people have 1.8 occurrences compared to 1.7 in Latinx and 0.9 in white people.
These figures speak for themselves — something needs to improve!
😕 Why are most feedback reviews biased?
The most underrepresented people in society frequently experience language bias in employees' performance reviews.
Bias and stereotypes have harmful real-world consequences, and we can blame psychology for why it happens.
Cognitive biases mean that the brain quickly categorizes information to help us make quick decisions about a person and their capabilities.
Although the brain's aim is efficiency, the output isn't always accurate. This bias also encourages us to approach feedback-giving with a fixed mindset. We're more likely to hold onto our initial impressions of an employee and less likely to see their potential development.
In contrast, a growth mindset allows us to see that everyone has the potential to improve with access to the proper training and development resources. If we shift our thinking to this perspective, we can work on stamping out our own biases in the performance review process.
🔍 What stereotypical feedback biases are there in performance management?
Here's a list of the most common stereotypical biases we see in the workplace and their impact on employees.
The latest global gender pay gap statistics are disheartening — they reveal we're 132 years away from achieving gender parity. With this in mind, it's unsurprising that gender bias is seeping into performance reviews.
Women are frequently deemed less suitable for leadership roles than men and are commonly assigned "office housekeeping" tasks instead.
Another issue is the idea of the "maternal wall" when coworkers perceive that working mothers take their eye off the ball and are preoccupied with family life. The Center for WorkLife Law analyzed bias in a midsize US law firm and discovered that "women were more likely to receive comments about being overworked than men."
Women who progress into leadership roles face strong language describing their success. New Stanford research published in the American Sociological Review looked at gender bias in employee evaluations at a Fortune 500 tech company. The study revealed that male and female workers were equally likely to be described as having technical skills.
But "women were more frequently characterized as aggressive, which negatively impacted how they were perceived and their career opportunities."
Sophie Neary, Group Director at Meta, highlights the importance of clear and constructive feedback that goes beyond gender biases:
Race and ethnicity bias
People of color frequently receive problematic feedback at work and often suffer from lower salaries.
The American Association of University Women conducted a 2021 gender and racial pay gap analysis, which tells us that the lowest-paid group of employees was Black and Latinx. This same category also experienced the lowest quality feedback over a long period.
Textio's research suggests that Black men get the least feedback of any other race, allowing them little opportunity to develop in their role.
When they do receive feedback, Black and Latinx people are described as "passionate" 2.1x as often as Asian or white colleagues. This wording is a known microaggression that could mean "argumentative" or "unable to get along with others."
Is there a perfect age for an employee? Workplace age bias suggests so, with early and late-stage career workers impacted the most by careless wording.
Textio's language bias study tells that managers describe people under 40 as "ambitious" 2.5x more than people over 40. And those in the older bracket are more likely to be labeled as "responsible" or "unselfish" than their younger team members.
Age discrimination occurs across the age spectrum:
- Young workers are often overlooked (or worse, disrespected) due to a perceived lack of experience and status.
- Older workers are considered to be past their sell-by-date. This is a particular problem in perimenopausal and menopausal women, typically in their late forties and fifties, who face bias about physical and mental health changes.
Fiona McKay, Managing Director of Lightbulb Leadership, explains:
"New research has shown that women in menopause get gender bias feedback based on their perceived personality changes rather than their performance. And it holds women and their organizations back."
Personality traits can also be a source of bias in the workplace. For example, more introverted people miss out on leadership roles in favor of those who are extroverted. And those with anxiety disorders are frequently written off as unable to cope with stress.
Sia Partners admits that self-proclaimed introverts on their teams can remember being told by leaders to "be more confident," "act more like an ideal consultant," or to "walk around and engage more in casual conversations with other employees."
These are examples of personality-based feedback bias — the feedback-giver implies they favor the behavior of extroverted colleagues who would be comfortable completing these three activities.
Religious bias is when people are categorized according to their faith or choice not to believe in God. And it can have a real impact on people's careers.
For example, feedback givers may consider that religious employees are dogmatic or inflexible while believing that atheist or agnostic employees lack moral values.
Scott Tuning holds an M.Div in Academic Biblical Studies. He describes common religious assumptions that create workplace prejudices.
"Christians oppose abortion, go to church on Sunday mornings, and support capital punishment. Muslims pray three times per day, fast during Holy days, and hate pigs and dogs. Jewish people make great bankers and lawyers, celebrate Hanukkah, and have an apocalyptic worldview. Atheists hate religion, believe people of faith are less than bright and are very liberal politically."
What's the compounding effect?
Examining the individual stereotypes shows the destructive power of feedback for someone belonging to a single category.
But what about when an employee falls into two or more?
For example, a black woman aged over 40 years old would tick the racial bias, age bias, and gender bias boxes. Indeed, black women receive 9x as much unactionable feedback as white men under 40.
When a feedback recipient falls into multiple discriminatory categories, this has a compounding effect, meaning that the impact is worse.
Another example? White men under 40 have the word "brilliant" weaved into their feedback 8.7x more than women over 40.
🧠 What cognitive feedback biases are there in performance management?
Moving away from stereotypes, let's take a closer look at some cognitive feedback biases we experience in the workplace. Some of these are grounded in our psychological makeup and personal experiences. Others are situational — we may be influenced by colleagues or have a distorted recollection of an event.
Recency bias is when the order in which things happen affects how we recall them.
For example, if an employee has received ten pieces of feedback over a year, but the most recent was negative, this may carry more weight than the other 9.
Affinity bias is when we have a natural inclination to work with people like us. It might be because they share our values or beliefs or because we have something in common.
For example, you might perceive a fellow employee more positively for attending the same school or being from the same town.
While there's nothing wrong with wanting to work with people we have a connection with, this common bias can lead us to overlook talented individuals who don't share our background.
The halo/horn effect is when our impression of an individual is impacted by one particular positive or negative trait.
For example, if an employee is overweight, they may also be incorrectly labeled as lazy or careless, even if there is no evidence of this in their actual performance.
Another example is when a charismatic employee with great interpersonal skills is seen as highly competent even if they consistently miss deadlines.
Confirmation bias is one of the most disruptive types of bias in the workplace. It refers to seeking out information that confirms our beliefs and ignoring information that contradicts them.
For example, if we believe that an employee is lazy, we may be more likely to remember when they arrive late for work and less likely to recall when they stay late to finish a project.
This phenomenon often occurs in organizations with a strong culture of conformity.
Social psychologist Irving Janis first coined the term "groupthink" in the 1970s. He defined it as:
"a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action."
For example, when most team members share the same views, it can be challenging to hear minority voices. As a result, unconscious bias can go unchecked and invade annual reviews.
Primacy bias is all about first impressions. In other words, we place too much importance on the first piece of information we receive, which will be dominant over anything that happens later. For example, if a new joiner fails to shine during onboarding but gets in their stride a couple of months down the road, it's more difficult for them to obtain higher performance feedback ratings than a new hire who impressed out of the gate.
Idiosyncratic rater bias
Idiosyncratic rater bias occurs due to the personal tendencies of the feedback-giver. In other words, the reviewer rather than the reviewee influences the rating scale.
For example, the reviewer has exceptional technical skills, so they consider this a more critical metric than communication or productivity. They may provide negative feedback to someone who doesn't possess technical capabilities even if they excel in all other areas.
💡 How to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace: 5 Essential Tips
You now understand that unconscious bias can be rife in any workplace. Follow these tips to unpack issues with any type of feedback in your organization.
1. Seize and review your current feedback
If you have a library of past performance review data, this is the perfect jumping-off point to examine the extent of feedback bias in your organization.
Tip: Go through your data and look for trends. Without this goldmine of information, you'll blindly try to fix something without understanding the bigger picture.
Dr. Mike Clayton, motivational speaker and management educator, explains the importance of regularly reviewing feedback data.
"In the workplace, we can minimize confirmation bias by being ruthless and rigorous in collecting fresh data each time and analyzing it bottom up. Rather than looking for the data that confirms the story we want to tell, we look at the data coldly and find out what story the facts tell us."
2. Gather evidence about your process
Who better to ask about your feedback process than your recipients?
Do they experience discrimination?
Tip: Create an anonymous survey to gather crucial evidence about where your feedback system might be letting down your employees and your business.
Remember: some employees may not realize that unconscious bias has crept into their reviews, as they won't have access to comparison data. Get around this by cross-referencing your surveys with actual reviews.
We spoke to Maciek Kubiak, Head of People at PhotoAiD, who explained his approach to disrupting performance review bias.
"Feedback bias can be a difficult mental habit to break, but there are a few things you can do:
1. Be aware of your biases and consider the feedback that runs counter to your personal views.
2. Seek out dissenting opinions and deliberation with others with different viewpoints.
3. Pay attention to the quality of the evidence and arguments on both sides of an issue. Stay away from simply going with what feels right or comfortable."
3. Educate your HR professionals
People Ops leaders must use their knowledge and experience of feedback bias to educate their organization. Therefore, sending a company-wide email on the topic is not enough. Although we do recommend having a reference document to show the language you should and shouldn't use in a review. Instead, the aim is to create an open and safe environment where people feel comfortable discussing unconscious bias and its impact on their work.
Any DEI education or bias training should never be a one-off event but an ongoing part of your organization's development plan. And everyone in the company should be involved in the conversation, from the C-suite to entry-level employees. But don't worry if you don't have all the answers yet.
This LinkedIn post by Neurodiversity Coach Clare McNamara proves valuable lessons are available when companies "increase the need to discover and be open."
4. Feedback-givers must be open to receiving feedback
Sophie Neary, Group Director of Meta, recommends that feedback-givers seek constructive feedback from peers to help pinpoint any bias. She explains:
"No one comes to work being sexist, homophobic, racist, any kind of -ist. If it's a blind spot or something that we can't see, we have to rely on other people to point it out for us.
So we've got to be open to feedback. Be specific about your questions: "What can I do differently next time?" "What's one specific thing I can do to show up as an ally?" "Is there one specific thing I've done in the last couple of months where you think I could have been inclusive?" Keep probing."
5. Constant course-correction
Feedback bias isn't an issue you'll solve overnight. But you can lessen it with continuous effort and the right feedback system.
Tip: Regularly check in with your team to see if bias is still an issue. Keep reviewing the data, and make changes to your feedback process where necessary.
Keep the conversation about unconscious bias alive – don't let it become a 'tick-box' exercise.
Instead, use it as an opportunity to build a more inclusive workplace where everyone feels they can be their authentic selves and all employee voices are heard.
➡️ Create a transparent feedback culture
Implement the above tips in a revamped employee performance appraisal process centered around 360 feedback to celebrate every voice in your company.
Zavvy's 360 software leads the way in developing a harmonious and constructive environment for employees to thrive. You can expect:
- Clear and intentional feedback, free from bias;
- Facilitating feedback from all angles;
- Establishing meaningful conversations as early as onboarding;
- Setting up a 360 feedback culture at the click of a button.
Create your employee experience at scale by signing up for a 30 minutes free demo of our transparent feedback tool.
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