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Giving Feedback: A Key Skill for Inclusive Leadership

’Tis the season for gratefulness, thanks, and feedback. At this time of the year, many managers are completing self-assessments or preparing for year-end performance reviews. 

Leaders often dread when it is time for the performance reviews. It’s awkward to tell employees they need to improve, and it’s often challenging to hear about areas of improvement. When a leader is committed to being inclusive, there’s often yet another layer of hesitation or anticipated awkwardness. Sharing feedback with someone who seems different from you — and with whom you have not yet developed a trusting, meaningful connection — can be challenging. Sharing feedback can be easier when you approach it more from a coaching mindset. How can you help them to more consistently demonstrate the skills or behaviors that are supporting their desired brand as an excellent, high performer in the workplace?  When coaching them to think about their leadership brand, it can make the conversation seem more solutions-oriented toward positive action. They can listen for what they can stop, start, or continue. It’s also more effective for the receiver  if you are sharing quick snapshots of real-time feedback throughout the year, rather than saving it for a formal sit-down session. 

According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, “It can be difficult to share critical, real-time advice – especially when there is an element of difference (race, gender, age) between the giver and receiver. Worried they will be perceived as racist or sexist, managers typically default to feedback that reflects “protective hesitation” rather than the candor women of color need to develop.” 

That’s why honest, effective feedback is essential for inclusive leadership. Feedback may not be easy, but it’s an opportunity to Listen. Learn. Then Lead With TLC (Transparency, Leadership by Example, and Caring)™.

Studies show that men receive more actionable feedback than women, and professionals of color get less feedback, guidance, and mentoring than their white colleagues. Failing to deliver feedback out of fear will hold back the very people you aim to support.

To improve your feedback skills, begin with the fundamental best practices of effective feedback: Be specific; Focus on observable behaviors; Offer feedback that is actionable; Ground your feedback in a growth mindset, focused on learning and understanding rather than blaming or being right. You can avoid misunderstanding if you can frame your feedback to benchmark what you are observing as the “best performance in that role.”  Most people enjoy hearing they are being benchmarked to the best.  Describing what you see in the top performers, and what you are not seeing consistently in their performance, helps them to identify ideas on what they can do differently to close the performance gap. Benchmarking to the best also shows your investment in their professional growth and potential.  Awareness of positive action accelerates high performance  when both people anchor on a vision of a shared goal that you are working on together. 

Understand the power dynamics of any feedback situation and strive to create a sense of safety. When there is an imbalance of power, the person with less will likely feel a heightened risk in the conversation. 

Be aware of unconscious biases that may lead to an unfair or inaccurate performance assessment. For example, many women of color experience the tightrope bias – a sense that they won’t be taken seriously if they’re “too nice” or will be rejected if they’re “too aggressive.” As an inclusive leader, it’s important to be aware of your biases and seek out other perspectives. Cultivating humility and a genuine sense of curiosity will go a long way. 

Remember, it’s always a good idea to express genuine appreciation. Inclusive leaders notice and recognize the unique and specific contributions of team members. This vital form of feedback reinforces positive behaviors and fosters a sense of being valued and belonging. 

Inclusive leaders use these opportunities to stretch their comfort zone and commit to do better. They deliver feedback in an honest, caring manner – one that demonstrates that they care deeply about their employees’ personal growth and advancement yet are unafraid to call out areas needing improvement. They receive feedback in a spirit of humility and empathy, truly listening and striving to understand.  

Often, the most important and productive conversations are the toughest ones to have. Engaging in caring, honest feedback shows your respect for your colleagues and creates an opportunity to build up the people in your organization. 

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