How to Build Leaders Who Give Inclusive Feedback
How to Build Leaders Who Give Inclusive Feedback

How to Build Leaders Who Give Inclusive Feedback

Leadership Development, Company Culture, Diversity Equity & Inclusion   — 3 MIN


Feedback has always been an essential component of a functioning team. More than checking a team’s “pulse,” feedback helps leaders identify issues, encourage positive behavior, foster growth, and deliver constructive criticism.

The modern workplace requires a more nuanced approach to giving feedback. From building a strong foundation and company culture to acknowledging individual experiences and identities to confronting and dismantling our own biases, focusing on inclusive feedback is not only necessary to achieve your company’s DEI goals, but also a fundamentally better way to engage and support your people on their growth journey.

How Bias Affects Feedback

Consider these common types of bias and how they influence feedback and performance reviews:

  • Halo/Horns Effect: This is the tendency to allow one good or bad trait to dominate the feedback, which stops us from viewing the person objectively. For example, when we let pet peeves matter more than valuable work or charm mask poor performance.
  • Leniency Bias: Managers who give higher ratings to certain employees, even while knowing they have clear room for improvement, often fall prey to leniency bias. For example, when leaders show a clear preference for those who are within their in-group while judging others more harshly.
  • Similarity Bias: Similarity bias is the tendency to give more positive feedback to people with similar interests, skills, and backgrounds. As with leniency bias, this sets up an immediate imbalance between those who share identities with their leaders and those who don’t.
  • Confirmation Bias: When we seek out or reshape information that confirms the things we already believe, we get stuck in confirmation bias. When it comes to managing people who are different from us, confirmation bias can cause us to discredit unfamiliar experiences and perspectives.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, biased feedback has far-reaching effects on our teams and organizations, from promoting disengagement and feelings of alienation to high turnover rates.

Building an Inclusive Feedback Framework

Employees crave feedback. Just as we can’t solve a problem we refuse to acknowledge, neither can a team member progress and grow without gaining insight into their performance. This is true of all constructive feedback, but where non-inclusive feedback might end up vague or unhelpful, inclusive feedback considers each person as a unique whole.

It’s important to give leaders a guiding framework for delivering inclusive feedback. Here are some framework suggestions offered by June Yoshinaru Davis, chief of staff for U. S. Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:          

  • Who: Focus on the person you are giving feedback to by ensuring that you consider their identities, perspective, and individual experiences. Check yourself for assumptions and avoid snap judgments based on stereotypes.
  • What: Consider the context and intention of your feedback as you prepare it, remembering that the goal is always to encourage your employee to improve.
  • How, When, Where: Make sure to be deliberate and considerate about your feedback delivery, including determining the right time and place to provide it.
  • Why: Considerations of inclusivity are especially important when we examine the “why.” Be mindful of which type of feedback you’re giving and your reason for giving it. And check in with yourself to ensure you aren’t letting unconscious bias color your feedback.

Once the framework is set, have your leaders make sure they’re applying these principles along the way:

Tackle the problem, not the person. Stereotypes and unconscious biases affect the way we view those who are different from us without our knowing. For example, research has shown that people perceive women as speaking far more often than they actually do.

Because of assumptions like this, it’s important to separate the person and their identities from the actual issue at hand. Not only will this help leaders avoid making unhelpful and incorrect assumptions, it turns problem-solving into a collaboration rather than a one-sided criticism.

Understand the other person’s perspective. Miscommunication happens, especially when we take differing cultures, identities, and perspectives into consideration. For instance, someone may speak less in meetings because they’re neurodiverse and process information differently. Or an employee from a different culture may not interpret social cues in the same way as their colleagues.

These differences make it important for leaders to consider perspective when delivering feedback. They must be willing to ask questions when things aren’t clear and be open to the possibility that they might be missing something or misinterpreting events.      

Learning How to Deliver Feedback Through an Inclusive Lens

Building leaders who can give inclusive feedback to employees of all backgrounds requires developing soft skills such as growth mindset, compassion, and active listening, along with other diversity, equity and inclusion skills that help them grow an appreciation for all lived experiences, become active allies, and dismantle natural biases.

Like the foundation beneath a well-built house, inclusive feedback requires an overall culture of inclusion. For today’s workplace, that means creating environments that value psychological safety, encourage authenticity, have a strong awareness of cultural context, and welcome open communication.

Within workplaces that embody these traits, employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work and don’t feel compelled to hide aspects of their identity. And when issues do occur, they feel safe to speak up and are more comfortable hearing feedback. The result is an environment in which everyone feels appreciated and included and has ample and equitable room to grow.