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8 Common pitfalls that make feedback non inclusive

  1. 1) Giving vague feedback
  2. 2) Not communicating belief in abilities
  3. 3) Giving different amounts of quality feedback
  4. 4) Not enough encouragement
  5. 5) Giving feedback on personal style
  6. 6) Speaking from gut feelings
  7. 7) Not owning your discomfort
  8. 8) Not checking in

1) Giving vague feedback

Inclusive feedback is objective, specific and leaves no room for interpretation. Good feedback should hold up as evidence in court. The opposite, subjective, vague feedback is not only unhelpful, it is a ripe breeding ground for potential for bias and inequality. Many studies show women are more likely to receive vague feedback that does not help them develop, e.g., 'You did a great job' compared to men who are more likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes e.g., 'improving your domain knowledge in X will allow you to participate in more strategic decisions'.

Furthermore, the uncertainty present in vague feedback is more likely to provoke doubt and mistrust in individuals who perceive themselves as non-dominant group members. Thus, vague feedback may harm less confident, non-dominant group members disproportionately compared to other employees.

One practice that keeps feedback objective and specific is to take time to ensure the articulation is objective and clear, while also giving it as immediately as possible so that passing time doesn't erode memories and make situations vague. So don't blurt things out without thinking, take time to consider the wording and describe the situation and impact clearly, but give the feedback as soon as possible when the details are still fresh.

2) Not communicating belief in abilities

Critical feedback is required to help us grow. Yet, those who have lower self confidence, or who associate themselves with a non-dominant group risk having their motivation and self-confidence undermined by corrective feedback. Studies find that non-dominant group members may be more demotivated and less receptive to feedback due to lack of trust. The way to buffer against demotivation and un-receptivity is to explicitly state that you are giving the critical feedback because you believe they can achieve the high standards you are setting. Studies found that when the feedback giver highlighted the belief in the receiver's potential to achieve the high standards set, both dominant and non-dominant group members felt equally motivated by the feedback. In The Culture Code, Dan Coyle suggested prompts such as “I’m giving you this feedback because you’re part of this group and we care about you and we think that you can do better at….” Research suggests going one step further and not only emphasizing that one can 'do better' but also explicitly stating that you believe they can reach the standards you set. For example, "I'm giving you this feedback because I believe you can reach these high standards that we're setting."

3) Giving different amounts of quality feedback

Sometimes we feel more reluctant to give feedback to employees we feel less comfortable and familiar with, whether because of personality or culture differences. Studies find that members of non-dominant groups are less likely to receive candid, direct feedback due to managers' fears of appearing racist or sexist. This 'protective hesitation' prevents non-dominant group individuals from getting the candid feedback in real time that they need to develop.

Furthermore, research shows that individuals who identify with a non-dominant group, or those who are less confident are less likely to seek direct feedback. Instead, they are more likely to look to the environment for 'indirect feedback', such as reading into people's body language, or incidental responses (or lack of responses) to something they say. The uncertainty and inaccuracy of indirect feedback can lead to an unfortunate self-reinforcing loop of uncertainty, doubt and eventual disengagement. The solution to this is to notice how much feedback different team members are getting. If some people are not asking for feedback as much as others, make up for it by deliberately offering more constructive feedback.

4) Not enough encouragement

There is great individual variation in how much encouragement someone needs. Studies have shown that on average, novices are much more motivated by greater amounts of positive feedback whereas experts tend to prefer greater amounts of corrective feedback. However, individual preferences also may play a big role. Some people will not want to 'waste time mincing words' and want to know exactly how to improve. Others will wilt without words of encouragement. Often it can be hard to remember to give positive feedback--it is natural to mostly notice things that need improvement. And not everyone needs encouragement to the same amount. Check-in with individual team members on whether they believe they are getting enough encouragement and positive feedback. Some people may say they find it more efficient to focus on what to improve while others will greatly benefit from heavier doses of positive feedback and encouragement.

5) Giving feedback on personal style

Sometimes it's relevant to give feedback on someone's communication style, e.g., if it's impacting performance, client relations or team cohesion. However, it's crucial to triple check yourself here for double standards. Just last week a female software engineer told me it was suggested she work on her 'anger management' issues when she got upset once at a team meeting. In contrast her male colleague shouted and slammed fists regularly and had never been commented on. Assessment of interpersonal qualities is one of the classic double standards between men vs. women, e.g., when a man has multiple outbursts and loud commentary and he is seen as 'engaged', whereas a single loud utterance from a woman will be seen as 'aggressive'.

If you notice someone's communication or interpersonal style causing a sense of friction, unless it's a very obvious situation, it's worth observing the entire team for several weeks, using an objective description of the behaviour in your head, e.g., 'spoke in louder tone of voice' or 'interrupting', to make sure that any feedback on communication standards are being applied equally to all members of the team. Better yet, give this feedback as team-wide communication standards so that everyone is on the same page for what is expected.

6) Speaking from gut feelings

Notice but do not speak immediately from your gut instincts. Your gut instincts and perceptions are more likely to be inaccurate for people who are different from you. Research finds that our ability to read others heavily depends on how readable they are. The more different an employee is from people you know, the greater the chance you are misreading them/the situation. To ensure that feedback is inclusive, it is essential to separate your perception from facts and be able to articulate situations objectively and without interpretation (see Tip 1).

Furthermore, gut reactions are more likely to be vague, unhelpful descriptions that leave the feedback receiver in uncertainty and doubt. If they already feel a bit of an outsider on the team, this will only worsen their sense of lack of belonging. Once a client told me they received the feedback, "You lack urgency, you aren't the way you seemed in your interview". She agonized for weeks over what this could mean and eventually left the firm. Imagine how different it would have been if instead the manager said, "You haven't spoken to me about your career goals, I'd like to understand better where you would like to head".

7) Not owning your discomfort

Whether you're a male manager having to discuss a female health issue, or whether it's a sensitive topic you are nervous to discuss, it can be important to acknowledge your discomfort, e.g., "I just want to say, I'm sorry if I come across awkward or something lands wrong, I'm still working on my own comfort on discussing these topics." This prevents the feedback receiver from reading into your discomfort as being a negative interpretation about them and helps reassure them that any awkward feelings you convey are due to your own discomfort rather than something to do with them.

8) Not checking in

At the heart of inclusive feedback is to include the receiver. Feedback is never successful unless it is integrated by the receiver. Engage in two-way dialog with your employees seeking understanding of their perspectives, understandings, and reaction to what was said. You can invite engagement by asking open-ended questions such as, "How can I help you better?", "Are there considerations I'm leaving out?", "Is there anything I said that was confusing or didn't resonate?" Active listening where you show you genuinely want to know their perspectives and concerns and take their input seriously will go a long way. Even if you cannot address their requests at the present moment, take the time to explain why, think about some partial strategies that can help the situation for now, and discuss what steps you can take to have their concerns addressed in the future.

It's also possible, they might have a reaction in the moment but are unable to put words to it. Invite them to come back with clarifying questions any time. "If anything I've said doesn't sit well or is confusing upon reflection please reach out in a few days and let me know."

Final Thoughts

Inclusive feedback is hard and takes practice. It's natural to find it difficult. Be kind to yourself. If you make a mistake, and someone reacts badly, be open to understanding why and learning from the experience.

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