Diversity and Inclusion

3 Tips for Making Feedback More Equitable 

June 29, 2022
August 11, 2022
  —  
By 
Catherine Tansey
Lattice Team

When you think of building a more equitable workplace, giving feedback probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But in actuality, it shouldn’t be far from the top of the list. In a recent Lattice webinar, People Success in Practice: Giving Feedback That’s Equitable and Actionable, Director of Advisory Services at Lattice Julia Markish spoke with Amber Madison, cofounder at Peoplism, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consulting firm, about how to provide more equitable and actionable feedback. Below, we’ll explore the key takeaways from their conversation about why feedback is an equity issue — and outline three actionable steps you can take to ensure more equitable feedback at your organization. 

Feedback Is an Equity Issue

Feedback is the way employees know how they’re performing in the workplace. It’s essential for motivating people and making them feel appreciated for the work they do, as well as for providing specific input about what they’ve done well, and where they can improve. Since equity means all individuals at the organization have an equal opportunity to succeed, feedback — information on how one is performing — is a key way to build or break equity in the workplace. 

Even with the best of intentions though, people are unavoidably biased, and unfortunately unconscious bias can creep in and negatively impact how feedback is doled out at an organization. Research shows that one’s demographic or identity group greatly impacts the feedback they receive. In particular, three ways researchers have uncovered a lack of equity in feedback practices are the withholding of critical feedback from people of color (POC), bias to more harshly judge the work of POCs, and the propensity to offer more personality-based or vague feedback to women.  

  • More errors are found in work believed to have been done by a person of color. In studying bias in the legal profession, research led by Arin N. Reeves, PhD of DEI consulting firm Nextions found that work believed to have been completed by a Black legal associate was judged more harshly than work believed to have been completed by a white legal associate. Researchers noted this was due to confirmation bias — the predisposition to search for, interpret, view, or think about information in a way that supports existing beliefs — that is derived from unconscious bias.  
  • Women are more likely to receive vague feedback. Stanford researchers Shelley J. Correll, PhD and Caroline Simard, PhD found that men are more likely to receive feedback tied to their performance, while women are more likely to receive vague feedback, like “Great job!” This occurs with both praise and developmental feedback. 

3 Actionable Ways to Give More Equitable Feedback

Here are three best practices that are helpful to keep in mind when giving all types of feedback. But, since people’s demographics and identity groups may be affecting how they’re given feedback, these tips are especially important to consider when providing feedback to staff members of underrepresented groups. 

1. Avoid personality-based feedback.

Personality-based feedback presents a number of issues. First and foremost, how we feel about someone personally is a separate matter from how well they do their job. Feedback should be about a direct report’s performance in the workplace; it should never be a way to offer tips about how they could change so we might like them more. 

Secondly, personality-based feedback is inherently biased, as it’s derived from our own personal interpretation of another, and likely vague. Vague feedback is rarely helpful or actionable because it’s not specific and detailed enough for an individual to know what exactly they did well or where exactly they need to improve. “You miss an opportunity to build the case to advance someone’s career [when you give personality-based feedback], and you also focus on something that’s not really helpful for the person in terms of how they can improve their performance,” said Madison.  

Yet sometimes an individual’s personality does affect their performance. If that’s the case, Madison said you must first ask yourself if that personality trait is necessary for success in their role. 

In the webinar, Madison provided an example of a worker named Terry who’s abrasive. If Terry is an individual contributor for whom collaboration isn’t a major part of their role, “then we all may have to accept that Terry is a little abrasive,” said Madison. 

But, if part of Terry’s role — say, as a project manager — requires that they get buy-in from others, move projects forward, and collaborate across functions, their abrasiveness will likely affect their ability to do the job. In this case, Madison said the key is to make the feedback specific and tied to outcomes and observable impact. 

For example, rather than saying, “Terry, you’re short with people and they find it abrasive,” you could say, “Terry, part of your job is to manage stakeholders to move projects forward. I noticed that when you spoke with Sarah about X, she expressed frustration for not being heard, walked away from the conversation, and subsequently did not meet her deliverable deadline for that leg of the project. I have some ideas for you as to how you might be able to better handle a situation like this in the future.”

Feedback tied to observable behavior is helpful because it avoids the ambiguity of a judgment call about what is or isn’t abrasive, said Madison. 

2. When sharing feedback, give specific examples to support your point. 

Specific feedback supports equity for two reasons: One, being specific helps control for biases that so often arise in feedback. And two, clear-cut examples and specificity help an employee improve. 

For instance, instead of saying, “Sam, you need to stop missing deadlines,” you could say, “Sam, I want you to work on your time management. I noticed you missed three deadlines this month, on X, Y, and Z projects, and that you’re often late joining meetings, like last Thursday for the discovery call with our new client. I know this is a fast-paced environment, and I think it would be helpful if we rethought your time management skills.” 

Specific examples aren’t just important for providing helpful, constructive feedback; they make positive feedback more effective, too. “[Specific examples related to praise] really help people feel seen for the hard work they’re doing,” Madison noted. 

Rather than saying “Great job!” to a direct report who moderated a panel discussion, you could expand on that by saying, “Great job! You drove the discussion seamlessly while managing multiple priorities. I was really impressed by your ability to both allow participants to speak freely, while also pressing them for more concrete answers and actionable insight.”

Another core component of specific feedback is that it needs to be timely. If you wait until annual performance or mid-year reviews, it’s unlikely you’ll accurately remember the context or details surrounding much of your direct reports’ work. Furthermore, the farther you get from a given event, the more likely it is that bias will sneak in, cautioned Madison. 

Timely feedback also serves to mitigate recency bias, the tendency to place more importance on the events that have happened most recently. Giving feedback often to create a continuous feedback loop, as well as providing it as close to the event as possible, helps minimize recency bias, Markish said. 

While it’s often the last thing a manager wants to do at the end of a busy day, taking the time to log and share feedback in the moment will enable leaders to provide more specific, useful, and actionable feedback to their teams. And after any feedback conversation, both the person giving and receiving the feedback should jot down notes about what was said in a dedicated notebook or document, or log the feedback in a tool like Lattice Feedback

3. Clearly define expectations for competencies and behaviors. 

Feedback is reflective of events, performance, and behaviors that have already taken place. But it’s likely that, as a manager, you want your direct reports to embody behaviors or take actions that they aren’t yet exhibiting, which means it’s important to describe what you are looking for from them in the future — and to do so as specifically as possible. 

Markish noted that managers often have expectations around performance in two areas: goals, or achievement-based objectives, and competencies, or qualities or behaviors that an employee is expected to embody while they are achieving these goals. While it’s relatively easy to get specific defining goals (which are achievement based), especially if you use a tool like Lattice OKRs & Goals that supports you in doing so, characterizing competencies takes more thought and effort. This is especially true because we often use vague, non-specific phrases to describe competencies, like “executive presence.”

Telling a direct report you want them to have more executive presence doesn’t help the employee understand exactly what it is you want from them. “What’s much more helpful to say is, “‘I want you to have executive presence, and what that means is in meetings you’re very concise and make your point quickly. It also means when someone pushes back on your idea, you can stand your ground and support your ideas,’” advised Madison.

Providing feedback around future opportunities for improvement helps employees understand the nuances of your expectations, and equips them to better meet and excel expectations around competencies and behaviors.

We often put far too little thought into the feedback we provide, especially when it comes to praise; a “Well done!” can feel complete in and of itself when we want to congratulate an employee for doing a great job. But with both praise and developmental feedback, using the tips outlined here to make feedback as specific and concrete as possible will enable managers to provide more actionable and equitable feedback to all employees.

Not sure where to start? Lattice Advisory Services is composed of a diverse group of individuals who can bring unique insight to your organization to identify and implement feedback and development strategies that help fight inequities. When every employee across a company gets an equal sense of how they’re performing through effective feedback, we can build more equitable organizations where all individuals have the same opportunities for success. 

To explore this topic further, watch the full webinar here, and learn more about how Lattice Advisory Services can help you build more equitable feedback practices with a strategic consultation package today.