A client recently asked me to provide workshops to all employees on how to give and receive feedback. There is nothing unusual about that—I do it frequently. What was newer was the growing imperative to cultivate inclusive leadership in all aspects of organizational life, including traditional bread-and-butter management skills. Bringing an awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues to the skill of giving and receiving feedback is critical to creating an inclusive workplace.
And yet, so many people avoid the conversation. One of the biggest barriers that I hear from workshop participants is that giving honest critical feedback will make the other person defensive or it will damage the relationship. As Kate Neville of Inclusive Leadership Strategies explains: “Many leaders and managers find delivering constructive feedback to be a challenge, frequently declining opportunities to do so, whether from a desire to spare the person’s feelings, avoid an uncomfortable conversation, preserve their image of themselves as ‘nice,’ or save themselves time by doing a task themselves. This is true even when the potential recipient of the feedback looks just like them.”
Delivering feedback to someone who appears different can make the task seem more daunting, heightening issues of fragility, discomfort, and fear of being shamed or claims of bias. In fact, studies show that professionals of color receive less feedback, guidance and mentoring than their white colleagues, and women get less actionable feedback than men.
“You’re not doing anyone any favors by not telling them what they need to change in order to advance,” Neville says. “No one can address an issue or develop a skill unless they are aware of it. Deciding not to work with someone or making a judgment that they’re not up to par without giving them a chance to improve leads to frustration on all sides, reinforces biases, and wastes huge potential. Shared learning and clear communication are in the interest of leaders and managers.”
An inclusive feedback conversation is grounded in the fundamental elements of effective feedback that have long been considered best practices:
But this model alone is not enough. In addition to following these best practices, inclusive leaders and managers need to bring a heightened sensitivity to power dynamics, bias and communicating across differences. Here are a few guiding principles to create a more inclusive approach to the feedback conversation:
1. Acknowledge power dynamics. When there is an imbalance of power, the person with less power, authority, rank or privilege is likely to feel a heightened risk in the conversation and even more so for previously marginalized groups. In the workplace, many individuals report a deep fear of getting fired or losing out on opportunities if they voice a concern to their manager. It is therefore incumbent on leaders to create safety for those with less organizational and cultural power. This means:
2. Interrupt your biases. Our decisions and evaluations are subject to a wide range of unconscious biases. These biases can create inaccuracies and unfairness in our feedback. As Neville says, “Neuroscience shows that all humans have biases; whether or not we have them is not in question. It is in fact physically impossible ‘not to see color.’ This doesn’t need to be a source of shame, but it’s also no excuse for behavior. The question is what do we want to do about that?”
Here are a few examples of unconscious biases that can lead to unfair or inaccurate performance assessment in the workplace:
Many women and people of color experience the tightrope bias: they are not taken seriously if they are “too nice,” and they are seen as unlikeable if they are “too aggressive.”
The prove it again bias requires members of a group that are stereotyped as less competent to repeatedly prove their competence.
Confirmation bias means that we seek out and pay attention to data that confirms our belief and ignore or discount data that runs counter.
Affinity bias leads us to gravitate towards and get along with people who are like us. We are also subject to many cultural, racial, and gender biases and stereotypes.
These and other biases can lead us to not fully see the other person and can skew our feedback. Inclusive leaders are not just aware of bias but they practice humility and a willingness to take in other perspectives with empathy. To combat bias:
3. Question your assumptions. Start with curiosity. Ask yourself whether your assessment is based on assumptions (things that you take to be true without proof) or is grounded in data. What are the things you don’t know that might be important to find out to get a full understanding? Have you considered how you might have contributed to the situation? Share your observations and ask for the other person’s perspective, using an open approach. “I noticed x – what do you think about that? What impact do you think that may have had?”
4. Consider the system and context. Although a feedback conversation typically focuses on an individual’s performance, it does not exist in a vacuum but rather in a complex organizational and cultural landscape. Failure to see systemic causes may lead us to place too much responsibility or blame on an individual. This was the case when an Asian female client of mine received feedback that she needed to speak up more in meetings, and her boss failed to acknowledge the team dynamics and norms that made it challenging. (It is also possible that some stereotyping and confirmation bias was going on there, too.) This is not to suggest that there is nothing for her to learn, but the conversation needs to include a full discussion of systemic aspects how her manager could support or provide opportunities for her, as well how she could improve her performance.
5. Show appreciation. Appreciation is a vital form of feedback. It reinforces positive behaviors and helps individuals understand their strengths and stay motivated. Research indicates that the highest performing teams have a ratio of approximately 5:1 praise to criticism. Positive feedback also helps foster a sense of being valued and belonging. Inclusive leaders seek out and specifically recognize the unique contributions of team members.
Given all these challenges, it may be tempting just not to go there. Feedback conversations are stressful, and many managers report putting them off or avoiding them even when they are managing someone who looks like them. And when difference—particularly racial or gender difference—is involved, many managers fall prey to protective hesitation, and are afraid to raise “touchy subjects.” The risk of getting it wrong, offending or causing damage stops the feedback conversation, and the careers of women and people of color suffer as a result. Career advancement depends on guidance, mentorship and sponsorship, and having feedback conversations is an essential part of those relationships. Inclusive leaders must courageously step into these conversations and make the investment: engage with curiosity and humility. And when you stumble or don’t get it right (which will happen), stick with it. You can both learn from having the conversation.
by Hanna Hart
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