When you’re giving feedback to colleagues and team members, it’s a good idea to check your biases at the door. That’s easier said than done though, as most of our biases are so well-worn and wired in, we’re completely unaware of them.
Are all biases bad? Read some sources and you’d be forgiven for thinking so. But think bigger and you’ll realise we all use biases much of the time: a bias is nothing more than a neurological shortcut. We receive information over and over – from our family and friends, online and in social media, on TV and in our daily experience – and over time it gets automated. And that’s why we’re often not consciously aware that we’re using biases. Some biases might come in handy: to speed up decision-making or form a plan, for example. Some biases are potentially damaging: thinking that all people with tattoos are anti-social, thinking that all heavy people are lazy, that all men are go-getting and that women shouldn’t chair a board of directors, to name a few.
How might biases show up when giving people feedback at work? In several ways. Here are three that seem to persist widely.
‘Horns/halo’ – we allow our (often initial) impression of someone to influence our overall estimation of them. If they’ve shown a particular trait, or we’ve seen them do something well – particularly if it’s a task we value highly – we can view every aspect of their performance in a positive light (the ‘halo’ effect ), even if we don’t have any evidence to back it up. We may be blissfully ignoring skills gaps or shortcomings in that individual’s performance. The flip side of this bias is that we may form the impression that someone isn’t great with let’s say, clients, based on one or two meetings and then in a heartbeat we believe them to be incompetent at working with all other people (the ‘horns’ effect). Click here for more background.
Gender stereotypes – do you give women and men different feedback for the same behaviour? You’re not alone. Women can come in for criticism about ‘being aggressive’, whilst a man behaving in the same way would not – he may be seen as ‘dynamic’ (and the critics can be both male and female, by the way). What’s going on here is our hardwired biases perceive an affront to the historic accepted order of things: women ‘should’ be co-operative and helpful; men ‘should’ be driven and results-focused. See this TalentCulture piece for more on how that shows up at work.
Affinity bias – if you’ve ever found yourself working with or interviewing someone and thinking, ’oh good – they’re just like me’, you’ve shown affinity bias. Two similar performers on your team may get very different feedback from you, depending on the extent to which they hit your ‘like me’ button. This bias is common in the workplace and particularly in recruiting. Now let’s say this potential recruit really does have all the skills and capabilities the job needs and we hire them, and they’re great – then what? The bias is reinforced. What if they’re hired and they don’t quite measure up? We’ll probably find reasons other than affinity to explain away why it didn’t work out.
What can we do to stay clear of the unconscious bias trap?
1. Focus on observable behaviour. Get crystal clear on what this person is doing – and isn’t doing – that merits feedback, whether that feedback is positive/praise or corrective. Steer well away from adjectives – ‘aggressive’, ‘supportive’, ‘hard-driving’, – that are merely our subjective inferences and label people in ways that are at best unhelpful and at worst indefensible.
2. Seek input. If appropriate you can ask others for input on someone’s performance. Be sure to ask questions to identify examples of the person’s behaviour and its impact, and beware ‘leading the witness’ – open questions work best. This can be as quick and simple as a short conversation with a peer in another department, in the course of doing the job. Or it may need more time and formality if the stakes are high, such as when promotion is under discussion.
3. Assess as objectively as possible. Growing concern about, and legal challenges to, the same old sorts at the top of firms have led to more rigorous processes for hiring and promotion.
Want to take a test to find out more about your biases? You can try Harvard’s ‘Project Implicit’ site, which offers a range of Implicit Attitude Tests (IAT).
Image: Silver balance, Slavoljub Pantelic/Deposit Photos