As a manager, giving and receiving constructive feedback can help improve engagement, increase productivity, and make you and your teams more self-aware. According to a study in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), 72% of people believe their performance will improve if they receive more constructive feedback. But traditionally, getting feedback at work has been a self-reported process. For example, managers might fill out self-assessments about themselves. Or, they might receive feedback from a supervisor and a team member for performance reviews.

Unfortunately, it can be easier for managers to dismiss self-reported feedback, due to either biases in how they view themselves or because they assume the other person giving the feedback is also biased. Interestingly enough, the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Lab recently found in one project, that only 15% of women and 24% of men managers had confidence in the performance evaluation process, while most viewed it as subjective and highly ambiguous.

So how can organizations work to empower managers with feedback that eliminates bias concerns? Part of the solution could be providing feedback based on observed digital behaviors. But before we explore that in more detail, let’s first look at some types of bias and how they impact the feedback process.

Self-Reporting Biases

Self-reported data is heavily used in the social sciences, and researchers have found several types of bias that can affect how people remember events and answer questions about themselves. Some examples include:

  • Recall bias – Our memories are not as good as we like to believe. People often remember events incorrectly or change small things each time they recall it, so they may not remember events from multiple months ago accurately when filling out a self-assessment.
  • Social desirability bias – People tend to answer questions in a way that paints themselves in a positive way. They may emphasize certain things on their self-assessment that they know HR will look favorably on, or minimize negative attributes.
  • Acquiescence bias – People like to agree rather than disagree and are statistically more likely to answer “yes” or “agree” in yes/no questions. If these questions aren’t written carefully, this bias can affect their answers.
  • Survey Fatigue – If surveys are too long, the quality may drop off part way through the survey as the respondent gets tired. Questions at the end of long self-assessments may not be answered thoughtfully.

For a manager assessing their performance at work, these biases could lead them to overlook their shortcomings or misinterpret past events, which could negatively affect their team’s morale and productivity. A recent study from the Cass Business School (at the University of Wisconsin) went so far as to say that the quality of a manager is the most important factor in employee satisfaction. Therefore, reducing bias concerns when working to empower managers with feedback can be crucial to leadership success.

Biased Feedback from Others

While feedback from others can offer powerful insights into performance, issues of bias can show up here as well. The biases listed above can not only impact self-reporting, but can affect how people evaluate others. Often managers will believe that feedback is biased (even if it’s relatively accurate), and may neglect to take action. If they receive negative feedback, they may get defensive and be more likely to shrug it off. They may assume their boss or team doesn’t like them, or has misunderstood a situation.

Some of the challenges we hear from our enterprise customers at Cultivate is that managers, especially executives, sometimes don’t believe or take upward feedback seriously.  To make matters worse, employees at all levels already dislike giving feedback overall because they find it stressful.

Some research has also found that team members don’t speak up to managers for fear of being punished, or because they believe their feedback won’t make a difference. This can create a vicious cycle: employees feel like they can’t speak up to their managers, bias affects the feedback that they do give, and managers may shrug off the feedback they do receive.

Is there a better way to resolve this? Yes!


The Role of Observed Digital Behavior

It’s possible to help reduce human bias in the feedback process by observing digital behaviors. New technologies can help give unbiased feedback to managers that want to improve self-awareness and become better leaders. While this is not a complete replacement for traditional methods, it’s a complementary approach that’s showing much promise for empowering leaders and managers.

By looking at a manager’s digital behaviors and sifting through their  “digital relationships” like emails, calendars and chat messages, new artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) platforms and tools can provide data-based feedback. For example, it can tell a manager how often they communicate after hours with certain team members, how often they solicit ideas from their direct reports, how positive or negative they are towards others, and much more.

Using digital behavior data can help to eliminate many of the biases associated with traditional feedback methods, and gives the manager a better picture of how they function with their team. Managers might be more likely to “believe” and act on feedback like this because they see it as impartial.

For example, after only a few weeks of using Cultivate’s AI feedback on digital behaviors, over 80% of managers report better self awareness of how they treat their team.

In summary, there are many potential biases when soliciting human feedback. Organizations should explore putting processes in place that can help reduce them and supplement them with new feedback mechanisms based on observed digital behavior. Managers will be more likely to take feedback seriously and put it into practice if they feel it comes from an unbiased source. This will not only help them grow and develop as leaders, but could also have a positive impact on team engagement and productivity, and ultimately improve their job satisfaction.

Joe Freed, CEO

Joe Freed, CEO

As Co-founder and CEO of Cultivate, Joe is focused on building leadership development and future-of-work technology for the digital workforce. In addition to leading Cultivate, Joe enjoys writing about workplace trends, teaching about startups and product management at UC Berkeley Extension, and occasionally running a marathon.