Free From Fear: Transforming Feedback to Change Culture

How to transform work culture by establishing psychological safety and ensuring feedback lands equitably.

Published: Aug 3, 2023  |  

Co-founder of The Equity Practice, a consulting firm

Feedback Culture

Fear keeps many of us from having the conversations we need to have at work. 

Scientists experimenting with fruit flies made a major discovery recently explaining why fruit flies avert their gaze from something they fear. Like fruit flies, humans often look away from things that frighten them, which might explain why people avoid feedback.

Research shows that feedback can trigger a fight or flight response for both the giver and the receiver. But what if there was a way to give and receive feedback that didn’t evoke fear?  Implementing an approach to feedback that centers liberatory principles can transform workplaces and ensure teams are getting the feedback they need.

As a racial equity consultant, I receive requests to support teams on how to overcome the fear of giving feedback and having conversations of consequence particularly across lines of racial difference.

Many people report they are scared of saying the wrong thing in ways that cause them to lose social capital. Teams avoid feedback and vulnerability to prevent social exclusion, and it’s holding them back.

Research shows that diverse teams need psychological safety to perform well. Psychological safety is a belief that team members won’t be shamed or ostracized for taking an interpersonal risk—the type of risks that exist when we engage in feedback and conversations of consequence. 

To be able to engage interpersonal risk and have the conversations needed to strengthen working together, there must be trust and vulnerability. Traditional feedback practices that enlist hierarchal systems of power and control, as well as further implicit biases, get in the way. 

Certainly, giving and receiving feedback can be terrifying. The fight or flight response triggered prevents many from doing their best work. Despite what most believe, feedback does not always improve performance. Sometimes it worsens performance because people feel singled out and punished due to implicit bias.

The effectiveness of feedback is greatly dependent on the orientation and mindset of the giver and receiver. Evidence shows that feedback is delivered inequitably across lines of race and gender.

Women and people of color are less likely to get actionable developmental feedback; the feedback they do get is often focused on biased ideas.

The way traditional feedback flows perpetuates patterns of domination and subordination at work, with those that have the most power in an organization being the ones who get to dictate what “good performance” is.

Mistakes have more consequences for people with marginalized identities due to bias and hyper-surveillance, which means feedback tends to have more punitive results for women and people of color. 

Research shows that humans have limited abilities to evaluate other humans consistently.  If it is impossible to be sure that someone else’s assessment of performance is “accurate,” then how is it feasible to rely on that feedback related to that assessment as the arbiter of truth? 

There must be a way to give feedback that disrupts bias and fosters psychological safety.

Liberatory feedback

Embracing liberatory principles like solidarity and sharing power to guide how to give and receive feedback can help managers and leaders create feedback cycles that are more equitable and encourage the vulnerability needed for psychological safety.

Liberatory feedback is an act of solidarity.

Solidarity is about acting in ways to leverage power and privilege to support the collective liberation of the entire team. In feedback, solidarity means shifting mindsets about who is the authority on performance on the team and breaking patterns of dominance that show up in feedback.

It also means management is accountable for disrupting how bias affects how leadership views performance. Solidarity-driven feedback neither diminishes nor relies on performance archetypes based on the dominant culture.

Liberatory feedback deliberately shares power and recognizes that managers are not all-knowing, and their perspective is just one of many.

As a manager, ceding power in feedback means letting go of being right about performance assessments and being open to people disagreeing with feedback. Traditional ways of giving feedback have elements of control in them, with managers trying to micromanage what their direct report does or does not do. Ceding power when giving feedback means respecting the autonomy and sovereignty of the receiver of the feedback to do with it what they will. 

Liberatory feedback also gives the receiver the opportunity to practice being undefended. Defensiveness is one of the killers of psychological safety. Defensiveness signals to the giver of feedback that they have made a social misstep by sharing feedback.

Being undefended requires being vulnerable and open to the perspectives of others. Being willing to take in the perspectives of others has been shown to increase creativity and innovation and decrease bias.

Perspective-taking gives the receiver access to more information than they would have access to on their own. Being open to the perspectives of others is also a form of building community, which is critical for collective liberation. It allows for the possibility to break the habit of individualism which separates individuals at work.

To be sure, some may resist being undefended in receiving feedback because bias impacts how people perceive performance and lowers the quality of the feedback they receive. These concerns are valid; research shows that feedback and ratings are more negative for women and people of color even when the performance is the same as their male or white counterparts. 

Liberatory feedback requires solidarity which means people are committing to disrupting bias in their feedback. Trusting that this will happen can feel like a leap of faith. 

Being vulnerable at work can be risky. Being willing to be vulnerable and undefended creates a pathway to connection and psychological safety that helps create a work environment where everyone can thrive.

There’s an old saying that feedback can be a gift. But traditional feedback can often feel like a gag gift nobody asked for—or even wants.

Liberatory feedback disrupts patterns of domination and fear in the workplace so teams can have more conversations of consequence that transform team culture.  Liberatory feedback is transformative and is the gift that keeps on giving.

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