Managers play a significant role in employee’s career and skills development, equipping team members with the knowledge and expertise they need to make it up the ladder while also serving as the gatekeepers to their professional advancement.
Within this challenging remit, feedback from managers is essential to employee happiness and managerial effectiveness. Every team member needs to understand how they’re performing, where they need to improve, and what they must do to achieve their professional aspirations.
As any manager will attest, providing regular, structured feedback can have a pronounced impact on employee productivity and engagement.
But while this might sound straightforward, there’s an elephant in the room. It’s called unconscious bias, and it’s one of the main reasons different employees working into the same manager often experience radically different outcomes.
Unconscious bias affects everyone
If, as managers, we are unaware of our biases, we risk bringing them with us into every employee dialogue, meeting and appraisal.
Sometimes this takes the form of stereotyping. Victor is from country Y, and people from country Y are hard workers. Tina is a mother of two and works reduced hours, so she’s less invested in her career.
Other times, unconscious bias stems from what we perceive of employees’ personalities. For example, the assumption that Melissa is an extrovert inevitably leads to further assumptions about the type of work she’ll favor.
Such assumptions are dangerous because they pre-determine how we treat certain employees, as well as how we perceive their subsequent behavior.
When Tina asks to leave early due to a home emergency, do we take the request at her word or as confirmation of our earlier assumption?
Different feedback for different people and personalities
Likewise, unconscious biases affect how we give feedback and the type of feedback we choose to raise.
Are we less direct with Stephen because we assume, from his quiet and mild-mannered nature, that he won’t be able to handle criticism? Do we empathize more with Jane because, as a parent with a young child, her experience resembles our own?
Remember, our unconscious biases are determined by our life stories. Naturally, these biases change over time as our situations change. For example, a young manager may find it easier to relate to the pressures people face when they first enter the workforce than someone in their 50s with a settled and comfortable lifestyle.
Bias creeps into the feedback process when we start acting purely on instinct, basing our feedback on sweeping generalizations or making preemptive assumptions about certain people, profiles or personalities.
Even with the most well-intentioned managers, the outcome can be highly damaging. Some employees will find that they’re better managed, afforded more responsibilities, given the benefit of the doubt more frequently, or even promoted more quickly.
Whereas, through no fault of their own, other employees will find themselves disempowered, ignored or passed over for opportunities until they eventually have to complain (or start looking for another job).
Five steps to reduce bias from everyday management
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with bias, largely because each person’s perspective is uniquely shaped by their own lives and experiences.
However, there are clear steps we can take to help minimize, rather than reinforce, our biases as we provide feedback to our team members.
1) Be intentional
Being aware of an implicit bias won’t necessarily make it any less entrenched. So, as a general rule of thumb, we should be very intentional in how we provide feedback, relate to and engage with teammates, consider promotions, and assign tasks/responsibilities.
Being intentional – i.e. understanding specifically what we’re looking to achieve before we do it – requires more forethought and consideration and less reliance on gut instinct or improvisation (as these reintroduce bias into the process).
2) Seek out differing opinions
To challenge our understanding of a situation – and thus, the type of feedback we need to deliver – we should seek out opinions that are different from our own.
The goal here is not to subjugate our perception of the situation and what needs to happen next; rather, it’s to try and remove ourselves from any echo chambers to make sure we aren’t missing anything big. This tees up step three…
3) Create a safe environment for airing views
We won’t get meaningful feedback from our team if people are uncomfortable airing their views or offering perspectives that run counter to ours. So we all need to nurture team environments in which open, constructive dialogue is encouraged, without judgment.
Everyone has biases, and there should be no shame in acknowledging instances where our perspective may be limited.
Ultimately, creating a safe environment and a culture of openness is beneficial in so many other ways too. It’s an essential step towards improved team performance.
4) Use data
In addressing our implicit biases, we can turn to basic data points to better understand how these biases might be manifesting themselves.
There are readily available tech tools that can track employee mood, sentiment, and engagement levels, that capture each team member’s thoughts and views about their manager/employee relationships on an ongoing basis.
However, bias is sometimes best captured by less obvious performance metrics – for example, how many meetings we hold with each employee, how long they last, how many are missed or canceled, or who does most of the talking in these catch-ups.
5) Stay vigilant
Unconscious bias isn’t a character flaw, and it certainly doesn’t make anyone a bad manager, but it’s important for us all to acknowledge potential biases and keep a lookout for ongoing evidence of where they may be impacting our managerial performance.
We won’t be able to preempt every single instance of unconscious bias in action – no one can!
But simply being aware that unconscious bias exists – and affects us all – is a starting point towards a more adaptive and considered approach to people management.
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