Language Bias is A Commonly Overlooked Aspect of Performance Feedback
Giving and receiving performance feedback is part and parcel of effective management, but it can easily be undermined by a language bias that offers “personality feedback” vs. constructive feedback, or feedback that is disproportionately negative or biased along lines of gender, race, age, or mindset.
In 2014, Kieran Snyder published a groundbreaking study after analyzing the language patterns found in the performance reviews of high-performing men, and women working in the tech industry. She found that, women were significantly more likely to receive negative critical feedback, rather than constructive, actionable feedback. (76% of high-performing women received negative feedback, vs. 2% of high-performing men.) In a stunning follow up to her initial findings, Kieran published a secondary study in 2022 that focused on gender, race, and age in performance feedback.
What is Personality Feedback?
We can probably all agree that it would be inappropriate to say someone was “irritating” on a review – but have you ever written that someone was “nice”?
In Snyder’s studies, and others, women are much more likely to contain personality feedback rather than actionable feedback about the quality of their work. Words like “abrasive, difficult, friendly, and helpful” were not found in the men’s feedback. Men, in turn, are more likely to hear feedback related to business outcomes, vs. their personality.
Across the board, women get 22% more personality feedback than men. This includes both positive and negative feedback. The next time you write (or receive) feedback, keep in mind that women are twice as likely to be described as collaborative or nice, seven times more likely to be described as opinionated, and eleven more times more likely to be described as abrasive.
Can you see yourself writing those words? Could you see yourself, in turn, writing those words if your direct report was a different gender or color?
An analysis of 25,000 in Snyder’s 2022 study found that Asian leaders receive less personality feedback in general than any other racial group. But even among Asian leaders, there is a pronounced gender gap; Asian men get 30% less personality feedback than Asian women.
The most personality feedback? Black women were determined to be 2.7 times more likely to receive personality feedback than Asian men.
Who Gets Actionable Feedback?
One problem with personality feedback is that it is rarely actionable, especially compared to feedback that is more focused on someone’s behavior at work. “You are often annoying” isn’t especially useful feedback - but “You often interrupt people in meetings” identiﬁes a speciﬁc behavior that someone can identify and work on.
Actionable feedback is clearly tied to leadership and a growth trajectory in organizations. If women and people of color are less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, they are not offered a clear picture toward advancement, or what is needed to progress to the next level.
Avoid Language Bias by Providing Purposeful Feedback
If you’re a manager or a people leader, you can be mindful that you’re providing all your employees consistently structured feedback that is speciﬁc, actionable, and focused on their work rather than on their personality or ﬁxed characteristics.
Five Examples of feedback focused on work, not personality:
- "I noticed that you missed your deadline for the report last week. To prevent this from happening again, how can we support you in managing your workload better?"
- "Your presentation was very informative, but I think you could improve it further by providing more visuals to support your points. Can you include more charts, graphs or images?"
- "I appreciate your efforts to meet the targets. I noticed some of your findings were not backed by data. Can you share some sources that support your conclusions?"
- "Your proposal was well-researched, but it did not thoroughly address the concerns raised by the other department. Can you consider the other department's concerns and incorporate those into your proposal?"
- "I recognize the effort you put into this project, but I noticed some inconsistencies in the formatting. Can you please review the document to ensure consistency and accuracy?"
By recognizing and avoiding language bias in performance reviews, employers and managers can ensure that all employees receive fair and accurate assessments. This will help create a more equitable workplace where everyone feels respected and valued.