Want to Give Feedback that is Heard and Acted On? Look to Science.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. You’ve told the same employee the same feedback approximately 5 million times (give or take). And yet, nothing changes. Maybe you get a blank stare, or if you’re lucky, a head nod. You feel as if your employee isn’t really listening, maybe doesn’t care, or possibly needs a different job entirely. What’s going on? 

First, consider how it’s possible that you may have a teeny bit of responsibility in this dynamic. It might not be what you’re saying that’s the problem. It could be how you’re saying it. Or it is likely a little bit of both. 

In a season where many leaders are preparing for, or already giving, performance feedback to teams, this is an ideal time to step back and strategize so words turn into actions that everyone feels great about. So let’s tune in with our employees to weed out our biases as step one, so our teams feel it. With this important first step, they’ll be much more likely to light up instead of shutting down and tuning us out.

Giving people fair, honest, and helpful feedback can be surprisingly complicated, so we need to know our blind spots. If you haven’t thought about how unconscious bias seeps into feedback, we have a concrete example to share. A study was sent to legal partners to review. They were told one was written by a white person and the other by a black person. The reviewers found 51% of the errors in the memo written by the white writer and 81% of the errors written by the black writer. The clincher? Both memos were exactly the same. The reviewers scrutinized the black writer’s work more. 

Unconscious bias is a brain on auto-pilot. Our big brains like to make decisions easier and faster, and Daniel Kahneman (Nobel prize winner) wrote an entertaining book on it called Thinking, Fast and Slow. Guess which thinking approach we want to use when giving feedback? As hard as it is to slow anything down in our digitally-warp-speed world, this is where taking it slow to mitigate unconscious bias is an investment, not a cost. So, let’s talk about some ways to work on keeping those pesky biases out of feedback.

  • 5:1 Ratio
    The frequency of positive to negative feedback matters. Employees want to be seen for all their contributions, so use the research-backed 5:1 ratio. 
  • Emotions vs Data
    Good for sports. Bad for feedback. Focus on the work, not your feelings about the person. If someone missed a deadline, talk about the importance of deadlines. Try to keep frustration out of it (read: don’t call it out as something about their character).
  • Empathy
    Listen. Give the person a chance to respond and take time to see it from their perspective. Think of it as a problem you can solve together. You’re on the same team.
  • Expectations
    When you assign something, be crystal clear on what result you want. Muddy guidelines create muddy end products.
  • Action-oriented, with a positive orientation (neuroscience!)
    What do you want them to do? Instead of “stop showing up late” say something like “please be at the meeting by 9:00”.
  • Consistency
    Clear evaluation criteria created ahead of time and communicated with your team saves time and energy and provides a sense (and more likely achievement) of fairness.
  • Evaluate
    Really reflect about your feedback before you give it given your awareness now of how unconscious bias works. Be bold with yourself and ask, would I judge this work/person in the same way if they were a different identity? 
  • Tools
    Invest in performance evaluation tools that prime for inclusion and disrupt bias the moment it might occur. (hint: we can help here if you need…)
  • Specifics – in both positive and “developmental” areas
    Avoid generalizations and labels such as “high potential,” “superstar,” “cold,” or “abrasive.” Instead, focus on observable examples such as “Last quarter she led a successful initiative that increased inbound leads by 25%.”

Need more feedback tips? Check out our article, “Why Every Excellent Leader Is a Behavioral Scientist.” Or send us a note. We would love to know what you think. What tips do you have to add?


Work is a team sport. We are on your team — drop us a line to tell us how we can help.