Are you getting the wrong type of feedback?

We were in the middle of a coaching session when my client told me something that nearly made me fall off my chair. She said, “I got my mid-year feedback yesterday and one of the words my boss used to describe me was ‘nice.’”

Quelle horreur!

When I picked myself back up off the floor, I took a moment to pause. I didn’t want my astonishment or my horror to be witnessed.  I put my best game face on and asked her how she felt about that feedback. “To be honest…” she said, “I thought it was a bit lame but I guess it was okay…right?”

Now perhaps you are wondering why I reacted so violently to her admission? Nice isn’t a bad thing. It could be considered a good thing, no? At the very least it’s just…well…nice.

And that my dear readers is my problem with it. Being told you are nice is not a helpful thing to say. What do you do with it? It is also not feedback that would ever (and I do mean ever) be given to a man so it is inherently biased in its nature.

A new report by the software company Textio – released in June – shows that there is an inherent issue with language bias in the workplace. Through a combination of surveys and analysis on language patterns on real performance documents, the report identifies that different groups of people do get different kinds of feedback at work—with women, Black people, Latinx people, and older workers receiving the lowest-quality feedback. These findings cut across organizations, meaning that the patterns are not specific to just one entity or its feedback culture.   

Among the report’s noteworthy findings:

  • Feedback to men tends to focus on the substance of their work, whereas women are 22% more likely to receive feedback on their personality.
  • Women are also twice as likely to report being described as collaborative and nice, seven times more likely to report being described as opinionated, and 11 times more likely to report being labelled as abrasive. 
  • By contrast, men are three times more likely to report being described as confident, and almost four times as likely to report being described as ambitious.  

Their findings also confirm that race and ethnicity also play a significant role in the feedback that people receive.

  • Asian people are described as brilliant more than twice as often as white people, and more than four times as often as Black or Latinx people.
  • The same is true for the term genius, which Asian people hear 1.7 times more often than white people, and 4.5 times more often than Black people.
  • On the other hand, the term overachiever—typically applied to strong performers transcending low expectations—is used to describe Black women 4.5 times more often than it is used to describe white men.  

The problem with feedback that is based on personality characteristics (note as perceived by the feedback provider) is that it is biased and it also further creates bias. Those described as ambitious or confident are expected to perform well and the feedback provider looks out for the evidence to support their bias. The same goes for those described as opinionated and abrasive.

Textio suggest that the encoded message underneath these patterns is both biased and clear: some groups are credited with more baseline talent than others. This plays out not just in written feedback, but in opportunities for challenging stretch assignments and promotion rates over time.  

Both personality descriptors like nice and so-called fixed mindset traits like genius and overachiever (which imply innate characteristics) are unactionable feedback. In other words, they do not communicate how an employee might improve and reach the next level.

Say Textio, not surprisingly, the groups who receive the least actionable feedback also tend to be least represented in business overall, and in leadership in particular. For instance, for every 1 piece of unactionable (or non-constructive) feedback received by white men under 40, women over 40 receive 4.4 and black women (across age groups), in contrast, receive 8.8.  

Why does all of this matter? 

Specific and constructive feedback about someone’s work performance offers them more opportunities to grow. When one group of people systematically receives feedback that is vague and biased by gender or ethnicity, we expect to see this manifest in disparate career opportunities and outcomes.

What can we do?

If you are a line manager, there are some straightforward ways to ensure you’re providing less biased, more useful feedback to all. Avoid commenting on employees’ personality traits and focus on performance ultimately but also behaviours where you feel it is appropriate and relevant. Provide concrete examples. Recommend specific changes in employee behaviour that would bring about better outcomes and suggest new ways to approach challenging situations.

If you are being given feedback that you perceive to be about your perceived personality traits as opposed to your performance and your behaviour, then call it out. Ask your manager to concentrate on substantive, evidence based and actionable feedback that you can take forward.

Everyone deserves to get constructive, unbiased professional feedback. Not everyone receives it. If we address the differences in the kinds of feedback that different people receive, we can begin to address even more significant workplace inequities: access to career growth, earnings power, advancement, and leadership.