5 Ways to Limit Bias from Feedback

By Melissa Suzuno
on May 15, 2018 10:00:00 AM


Feedback is the cornerstone of a high-performance culture. The more employees become accustomed to giving and receiving feedback, the better equipped they are to perform at their jobs. By regularly having meaningful (and occasionally difficult) conversations, they can also strengthen their relationships with coworkers.
Research from Gallup has also shown a clear connection between manager feedback and employee engagement. When managers take the time to focus on their employees’ strengths, 67% of employees are engaged, whereas employees who don’t receive any feedback and feel ignored by their managers are 40% more likely to be disengaged.

At the same time, feedback has to be given in a thoughtful and considerate manner. Feedback, like performance reviews, is subject to many unconscious biases. People may believe they’re giving feedback in a fair and equal manner, but chances are that they’re taking mental shortcuts—most often without even realizing that it’s happening.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common forms of bias that may impact how people give feedback to others.

Gender bias

Research shows that the quality of feedback written about women vs. men differs vastly. Gender bias easily creeps into feedback exchanges, leaving women with unequal access to high-quality feedback. More of the feedback is negative and subjective as well as personality-based rather than work-based.

We’ve seen this firsthand—we looked at data from our own customers, we observed a gap between the frequency of work-based and personality-based feedback to men as opposed to women. In some cases this gap was as large as 13%. (Learn more about the research we conducted and what we learned from it in this post by our CEO, SK.)

Recency bias

People tend to focus on things that happened more recently rather than looking at an entire performance cycle. It makes sense—it’s difficult to look back on an entire quarter (not to mention an entire year) and remember every single project or accomplishment. The things that happened most recently will naturally be the things that stand out.

Halo and horn effects

The halo effect occurs when a reviewer assumes that because a coworker excels in one area, they must excel in all areas. This assumption takes place at the expense of considering each of the person’s traits individually. For example, if a salesperson always meets their quota, they may get positive feedback even though they are habitually late to meetings or neglect to mentor junior team members.

The opposite of the halo effect, the horn effect is where a reviewer focuses on one negative attribute and neglects to consider all of someone’s positive traits. For example, if someone does not collaborate with others well, the reviewer may overlook the fact that their work is always delivered on time.

Confirmation bias

People are more likely to notice and remember information that validates an opinion they already have (and also more likely to forget or dismiss information that conflicts with their opinion). If a manager believes that their direct report is good at handling deadlines, they’ll remember all the times the person finished projects on time and forget about the times when they were late. Or, on the other hand, if a manager believes that someone isn’t good with deadlines, they’ll forget about all the times they did finish work on time and only focus on the occasions when they missed deadlines.

Understanding that these types of bias exist is an important step, but there are also a number of feedback best practices you can adopt to help reduce bias from your feedback process. Here are five steps to giving more unbiased feedback.

1. Use a structured template

Adding structure to your feedback is one of the best ways to ensure that everyone is giving and receiving feedback of a similar nature. You can design the template so that it guides feedback givers to focus on work output rather than personality.

For example, the Situation-Behavior-Impact model is a common and effective framework for delivering actionable and unbiased feedback. The focus of this type of feedback is on the impact of an individual's actions, rather than on the individual. In this model, the person giving feedback describes the situation, details the behavior they witnessed, and characterizes how this behavior impacted those involved. The model is a useful tool as it delivers clear, situation-specific feedback, allowing employees to focus on adjusting one behavior at a time. Interested in learning more about this model? Download a copy of the eBook “How to Deliver High-Quality Feedback That Drives Performance” for a more in-depth look at structured templates like the Situation-Behavior-Impact model.

2. Give feedback often—and keep a written record

When feedback is only given or collected once a year, such as in the annual review process, it’s easy for recency bias to play an outsize role. It’s difficult to remember what happened over the course of 12 or even 6 months. But when feedback is given regularly, it removes the burden of remembering everything that has happened over a large chunk of time.

Similarly, keeping a written record of feedback makes it easier for reviewers to look back on what they’ve said in the past. This can reduce recency bias and help the reviewer more easily identify trends and changes.

3. Tie feedback in to a tangible outcome

We mentioned earlier that women tend to get feedback that’s more vague, negative, and subjective (and it’s not just women, either—research has shown that whenever there’s a “dimension of difference” between the reviewer and reviewee, the quality of feedback suffers). This can have a negative impact on women’s chances of being promoted and advancing in their careers. In the Harvard Business Review article “Research: Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back,” Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard write: “Without specific, documented business accomplishments, it is difficult for a manager to make the case for advancement. Conversely, if a business objective was missed, a lack of frank feedback deprives women of the opportunity to hit the mark next time.”

One way to overcome this is to make sure that feedback is tied in to a specific outcome. It’s the responsibility of the person giving the feedback to consider what sort of tangible outcome could come about as a result of sharing this information with the recipient. Correll and Simard recommend looking for ways to tie feedback in to specific business results, such as helping the team to prioritize or meeting deadlines.

4. Collect feedback from a range of people

Placing all the burden of giving feedback on managers doesn’t just add to their workload and stress—it also makes it challenging for employees to get a realistic understanding of their performance. In today’s workplace, it’s rare for a manager to be the person who works closest with their direct reports. It’s much more common for team members to collaborate with each other or across departments.

One of the best ways to get accurate feedback is to collect it from a range of people—not just the employee’s manager. And while most employees seek feedback from their friends or people who are likely to give them a favorable review, some solutions can automatically request feedback from the people an employee works most closely with. Gathering feedback in this way can help to reduce confirmation bias.

5. Educate employees and monitor the quality of feedback at your organization

Offering unconscious bias training to all employees is one way to raise awareness of how bias can impact feedback. However, it’s important to note that education alone is unlikely to have an impact. It’s important to couple training with action steps (like the ones we’ve outlined above).

Another important step you can take is to look at your company’s own feedback data. In a recent article, our CEO covered how you can measure and mitigate unconscious bias by surfacing any disparity between how different employees are being described.

Feedback is what fuels employees to grow and develop, and it’s essential to creating a high-performance culture. By reducing bias in your feedback process, you’re giving all employees a better chance of receiving the type of high-quality feedback that will help them to improve.



Topics: Continuous Feedback, Diversity & Inclusion

Author: Melissa Suzuno

Melissa Suzuno is a freelance copywriter who enjoys exploring the intersection of people and work.

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