It may be an uncomfortable truth to acknowledge, but psychology tells us that humans are hard-wired to develop bias. In itself, bias is neutral—neither good nor bad, positive or negative. It’s a way our brains sort information and try to make sense of the world. In bygone eras, when physical threats were far more prevalent, bias could function to keep us safe.
We often think of bias in more social or cultural terms, but humans don’t separate their social selves from their work selves at a foundational level. Our brains just see the world in one big jumble that requires sorting and processing, to some degree. Because we are constantly evaluating and sorting, bias can unintentionally creep into our assessments of others. This unconscious bias can lead to evaluations that favor certain people or groups over others. These biased assessments aren’t usually malicious, but they can result in unfair or unconstructive feedback.
Human brains evolve slowly, and no one can eliminate bias. So when leaders and team members approach performance reviews, it’s essential to acknowledge bias and mitigate it as much as possible. As the new year rolls around and performance review cycles start over, it’s an excellent time to examine ways to manage bias in the feedback process. Whichever side of the table you’re on in the performance review process, it’s crucial to minimize assumptions and open conversations that lead to real growth and development.
Keep these three tips in mind to help you manage bias:
1. Be Specific
Remember that when you ask general questions, you will receive general answers; likewise, specific questions will tend to receive specific answers. When you receive feedback that feels biased, ask developmentally focused questions around specific behaviors. Try to get specific answers that connect the feedback to behaviors and help you construct a development plan for growth. Likewise, when giving requested feedback to peers or direct reports, frame your responses as precisely as possible. If you need more specific questions, ask.
2. Get a Variety of Perspectives
When you sense that a set of assumptions about you has impacted feedback, take time to gather various perspectives. Remember the four critical relationships of a leader: your boss, your direct reports, your peers, and your customers. Seek feedback from all four sources to get well-rounded feedback. Likewise, encourage your direct reports or peers to do the same if they need more input about developing their skills.
3. Ask for a "rephrase"
Ask the person who gave you the feedback to rephrase it as if talking to someone else about you—a team member, boss, or peer, for example. What would that person say about you to someone else? Would there be assumptions or bias in what they said about you? Rephrasing the feedback in this way may help you both to wade through assumptions and gather the nuggets that will help you develop yourself. When you are giving feedback to someone else, think through your feedback in a similar way. What would you say about that person to someone else? Can you detect assumptions or bias in your feedback? If so, how can you mitigate the bias and tie the feedback to specific behaviors in a way that encourages growth and development?
One final note: in any kind of assessment, one way to help manage bias is to introduce “friction.” As author and researcher Jennifer Eberhardt describes it, “friction” is a process of introducing checkpoints or reflection points in our thinking—slowing ourselves down to help us examine assumptions. When offering feedback, slow down and reflect. Use the three steps above for guidance—be specific, think through other perspectives, and rephrase from another angle.
Some bias is unavoidable—after all, we are all human! But for maximum growth and development, take the time to step back and reframe the feedback in a more specific and objective way. As you learn to give and receive less biased developmental feedback, you’ll encourage more constructive professional development—on both sides of the review process.