Creating a culture of fairness through feedback

Bevan Rees
Sep 24, 2020

Gender bias in the workplace is a much-discussed topic. Headlines highlighting unfair gender pay gaps and biased recruitment processes are a common sight. However, what’s less, scrutinised under the equality microscope is performance feedback.

Yet, there is mounting research showing women get less feedback than men. Not only in terms of frequency but also quality and content. This presents not only an issue for organisations but also wider society.

“You can’t solve the issue of women’s representation at the C suite.”

At a time when we are grappling to adjust to new, and extreme circumstances, where we need to learn new skills, re-invent processes, use different behaviours—a lack of gender parity in feedback presents a growing concern.

Sergey Gorbatov, co-author of ‘Fair Talk, Three steps to powerful feedback’, explains why this presents a serious issue: “Women are disadvantaged when it comes to the quantity and quality of feedback. And because feedback is critical to performance and performance is critical to career progression, differences across genders in feedback today will result in differential career outcomes tomorrow, with women getting the shorter end of the stick.”

So, how can organisations and leaders counter unfair feedback?

In this thought-provoking and enlightening masterclass, Sergey Gorbatov & Angela Lane discuss gender inequality in feedback and propose a range of practical solutions that businesses can truly embrace.

“Differences across genders in feedback today will result in differential career outcomes tomorrow, with women getting the shorter end of the stick.”

Big takeaways

Improve content with the process

Research shows men receive more constructive outward-facing feedback that is based on their skills, e.g.., how to boost sales numbers. In contrast, women receive feedback focused on their behaviours and personality traits, e.g. how to collaborate better.

To tackle this, Angela suggests structuring feedback so “managers must give feedback on two things that are working well. And two things that the employee should do more of in the coming period.”

Make validation a requirement

Another critical issue is the level of inaccuracy and ‘sugar-coating’ that occurs in feedback for women. In contrast to men, tend to receive more negative feedback. Psychologists from Cornell University found a societal expectation to give women kinder feedback, with an increased inclination for a soft-touch approach avoiding tangible skills-based assessment.

One way to address this distortion is by forcing validation into your process.

Angela suggests “feedback comes from different stakeholders to bring different points of view.” For instance, performance calibration meetings, self-assessments, peer-reviews. In “being forced to get others to look at our arguments, and our reasoning makes us just that little bit more conscious of what we’re doing.”

Leveraging feedback culture

When it comes to organisational changes to address feedback, the first and foremost is culture. In their book, Sergey Gorbatov & Angela Lane identify seven levers of a feedback culture.

These include:

  • structure and organisation
  • technology and tools
  • policy and process
  • metrics and measures
  • competency and skills
  • leadership and change management.

By running a diagnostic of your feedback levers, you can then gauge your feedback culture and identify weaknesses. For instance, you can ascertain things like “how strong is your leadership to drive the feedback culture, or what good feedback looks like and how it should be delivered.”

Moreover, Sergey suggests a “strong feedback culture requires building the capability to do so. Do you train on feedback? Is that the right training? Do you train at all levels? And does your training deliver the expected results?”

When all else fails, ask for feedback.

From managing feedback frequency to content, asking for feedback is the most powerful strategy for receiving fair and right feedback. Even though it might feel uncomfortable, this approach puts you in the driving seat.

Angela says “if you’re worried about only getting feedback on your personality and not on what skills you need, ask ‘what’s one skill that I could improve’, or ‘what experience do I need’. You don’t need to go to a lot of people for validity—select people that are credible and whose opinions you trust and respect.”

Episode Highlights

How feedback differentiates between men and women.

“So women are getting less feedback, but it doesn’t stop there. Men receive more constructive feedback. So in practical terms, a man, let’s call him Andrew, would be told about how to get the sales numbers higher. In contrast, Sarah would get feedback to be more collaborative. Both types of feedback on the outcomes and behaviours are important and necessary. But such differentiated treatment is unfair.”

Managing content by changing the process.

“At Prudential, you can guarantee that your feedback will include two-plus-two-things. What does that mean? Their feedback is structured around the fact that managers must give feedback on two things that are working well, and two things that the employee should do more of in the coming period.”

Ask the question

“Yes, no—my organisation has measures in place to ensure fairness in feedback for all employees, and we talk about fairness and feedback, we mean equal amounts, same content, same qualities, and frequency.”

Validation, Google-style

“One company we admire for its approach to validation is Google. At Google, no assessment is considered final before the calibration process takes place. Laszlo Bock, who was the then SVP of HR, famously said, ‘the soul of performance assessment is the calibration element.’ Google believes it reduces bias because managers are forced to justify their decisions to one another.”

My organisation isn’t one of those that require multiple points of view.

“If you’re a leader of others, all of us can take the personal decision to reserve judgement. Until we validate our feedback with the thoughts of others, that would be not only validating feedback that we might think about. You know what? I’m also going to make sure I validate it with a group of diverse others.”

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

“Many believe that culture is something intangible, impalpable, ethereal, but that’s an abdication of responsibility. Let’s get something straight. Culture is real and visible because it is manifested through behaviours. And since behaviours of visible culture can be measured. And what can be measured can be managed.”

Feedback culture

“How easy is it to request and give feedback across the structure, upwards downwards, to peers to Matrix partners? Is your organisation and structure configured in a way that makes giving and receiving, and asking for feedback? The hierarchies don’t prevent people from giving feedback. Or, oh my God, we’re so siloed people need to ask for written permission for giving feedback to someone in a different department.”

Leadership and feedback culture

“Leadership is about the tone at the top. It’s what your leaders say about feedback. How the role model is asking and receiving it and how they create accountability in all employees to demonstrate behaviour that is consistent with the desired feedback culture at your organisation. So, how strong is your leadership to drive the feedback culture?”

It’s not just about fairness but social justice.

“You can’t solve the issue of women’s representation at the C suite. If the playing field for feedback isn’t levelled but deprived of the positive leverage that feedback creates, and potentially deprived of that over the years, you’ll just end up with less talented women at the top. Because it deprives the group of the equal opportunity to learn, it deprives us of an equal opportunity to achieve and advance.”


Top quotes:

[1:56] “Our passion is how we help individuals reach their full potential. Twelve months ago, that passion led us to publish a book ‘Fair Talk’ where we argued for greater fairness in feedback.”

[2:32] “Of the many variables that impact human performance, the science confirms that the right feedback actually acts as a leverage point.”

[5:19] “Women get less regular feedback than men, and the differences in frequency are really significant.”

[6:08] “Feedback is a trigger, and leverage that creates high performance, women are getting half as much opportunity to either adjust or correct a problem.”

[11:01] “Men benefit from performance information on how to get results. While women tend to get more information on how to get along with others.”

[14:28] “When we think about kind, untrue, white lies, sugarcoated feedback—we think about women.”

[30:40] “Culture is important because it’s like the mortar that holds the organisational bricks together.”

[16:33] “Differences across genders in feedback today will result in differential career outcomes tomorrow, with women getting the shorter end of the stick.”

[38:55] “Lack of change management is good intentions, lack of execution”

[40:36] “The easiest observation is nobody is winning at the game of creating a culture where feedback happens organically.”

[44:06] “You can determine frequency. You can structure content. You can require validation. You can do all that stuff through the process or more holistically,

[45:16] “Better feedback to anyone lets them improve. And if you level the playing field of performance improvement opportunity, that’s definitely good for business.”

[45:56] “You can’t solve the issue of women’s representation at the C suite.”

[46:01] “If the playing field for feedback isn’t levelled, you’ll just end up with less talented women at the top.”