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How Allies Can Help Close the Divide: The Feedback Edition

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Amanda Gorman reading her poem at the 2021 presidential inauguration
Credit Chris Coons via Wikimedia, Public Domain work

This week’s inauguration in the U.S. has given me much hope for a future that will be more equitable. The momentous poem by Amanda Gorman, the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S., embodies this hope. “And so we lift our gazes not To what stands between us, But what stands before us. We close the divide, Because we know to put Our future first, we must first Put our differences aside.”

I’ve got about a million ideas for how we can take action in the workplace to close the divide, but I’ll stick to just one theme for this week’s newsletter: Equitable feedback. The kind of feedback that helps people grow in their careers. The feedback that can help close the divide in professional opportunities.

Much of this content comes from my book, Better Allies. I hope you find it helpful, whether you are in a position to write performance reviews or simply giving someone informal feedback.

1. Don’t soften your feedback

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott explores why it may be harder for men to be radically candid with women. She writes, “Most men are trained from birth to be ‘gentler’ with women than with men. Sometimes this can be very bad for the women who work for them.” In other words, men might hold back from criticizing women employees because they’re afraid they might cry.

But that’s not all. As Lean In and McKinsey found, it can also be uncomfortable to give feedback to someone different from us. Here’s why. We might be concerned they’ll think we hold prejudices against them because of their race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or educational background. To avoid this perception, we might soften the feedback.

However, constructive feedback helps people to grow in their careers. Allies, let’s not ease up to avoid hurt feelings or because we don’t want to come across as prejudiced.

2. When giving feedback, focus on the business impact

A few years back, a tech company asked me to lead a career development workshop for a group of women employees. Beforehand, I was given access to their profiles and the kudos they’d received. One woman caught my eye because of two vastly different endorsements she received for the same project:

  • A big thanks to Sue for spearheading improvements to our product support portal. Very quick on the uptake and always responsive!
  • Congratulations, Sue, on your two-year anniversary at our company! You’ve done outstanding things in your first two years, including rebuilding the product support portal to scale with our $100M enterprise business.

As I read the first one, I felt it was superficial and rushed. The reviewer didn’t identify how being “quick on the uptake” led to having an impact on customer satisfaction or bottom-line results. By contrast, the second reviewer clearly recognized Sue’s impact: that she had rebuilt a key product, allowing the business to scale to $100 million.

The first endorsement is a stunning example of what researchers at Stanford’s Clayman Institute call “vague feedback.” By analyzing performance reviews from three large tech companies and a professional services company, they uncovered some telling differences in the kind of feedback given to men versus women. They found that women were less likely than men to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes. This was true for both praise and constructive feedback. By contrast, men were offered a clearer picture of what they were doing well and how their performance was impacting the business. Their feedback helped them identify what they needed to do to get promoted.

Think about the last piece of feedback you gave to a woman or a coworker from another underrepresented group. Did you connect the dots between their performance and the goals of the business?

3. Flip it to test it

If you’re in a position to give someone constructive comments, you may think you’re doing so based solely on their performance or role, but your choice of words may betray unconscious bias. For instance, researchers examined teacher evaluations and found that men were more often described as “brilliant” and “genius” or praised for their innovative ideas, while women were more often acknowledged for their kind demeanor and execution.

Here’s a quick way to check your feedback for this bias: Ask yourself, “Would I give the same feedback to someone of a different identity or background?”

In other words, “flip it to test it.”

Credit to Kristen Pressner, a global HR executive, who gave a TEDx talk on bias in which she recommended the “flip it to test it” approach.

4. Write reviews of roughly the same length

Now for what may be the simplest suggestion for evaluating employees equitably: Write reviews of roughly the same length. As our friends at the Clayman Institute point out in this Harvard Business Review article, “This helps ensure a similar level of detail — and therefore of specifics — for everyone.”

5. Ask for feedback on how to be a better ally

Keep in mind that feedback is a two-way street. Allies, let’s check in with our team and let them know we’re working to become a better ally for coworkers from underrepresented groups. Ask, “What’s one thing I could be doing differently to better support you or to create a more inclusive workplace?” And then take action.

Drawing of a Black person and a white person at a table. Text: 5 Feedback Tips for Better Allies, with all tips in this post.

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies®

Being an ally is a journey. Want to join us?

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✉️ This content originally appeared in our newsletter, 5 Ally Actions; Subscribe to get it delivered to your inbox every Friday

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Better Allies®

Better Allies®

Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.

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