Why unbiased feedback is just an illusion

With pressure on HR and managers to reduce bias and increase objectivity and transparency, how achievable is this? Elva Ainsworth from Talent Innovations argues that when it comes to feedback, we’re always biased.

This is a picture of many wonky lines, right? Wrong. Optical illusions like this one show us clearly how our brains make assumptions for us.

If we can get some black and white lines wrong, then you can be sure we will get the complexity of people very wrong.

This can apply to managing others’ performance at work, where true “objectivity” is our Everest. It is the ideal goal, the sign of good management and achieving it in organisations is, quite frankly, HR’s dream. But objectivity is not just a tough goal, it is actually impossible.

Objectivity is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”.

It is the absence of bias and prejudice. It is about being fair and just. If you are being objective, you are seen as open-minded and neutral. All of these are to be applauded if we seek a world of diversity and inclusivity.

The flaw in the logic underlying this ideal is the value and importance placed on the “facts”. Coupled with the assumption that you can leave feelings behind in your decision-making process, this implies we humans can be robotic when we, by definition, cannot.

Unique perspective

If you have ever found yourself as a witness in a crime, you will discover that the “facts” as you have them, may differ from others’ facts.

You will have seen things happen from your own unique perspective and through your own filters of expectation and judgements. Your view will be restricted and potentially inaccurate.

For example, there is a reason why you take someone with you to a difficult appointment with a doctor – you will not hear everything yourself.

Recently, I had to break the news of two family members being very badly injured in a car accident. I repeated the information to my sister three times before it was heard and then she phoned me back a few hours later and asked me to tell her again.

An emotional reaction affected her processing. Our emotional responses are not always this extreme, but our emotions and our expectations are literally always with us and affect every opinion every time.

What we think we know

So, what gets in the way of objectivity? It’s not just our emotions. The key source of bias is “already knowing” something which moves you away from a curious enquiry into a more closed or filtered mindset where full data gathering is hindered.

Three factors can lead to a filtering – expectations, preconceptions and judgments, all of them leading you to have a clear view of what things should look like.

Expectations are a key factor in this process of objectivity. They may be justified and based on your experience or they may be simply what you think “should” be happening.

There is always a really good, logical reason for an expectation. But the thing with expectations is that they are always made up. I may expect my house price to increase over time and most of us live as if this will happen – but it may not.

I will likely be most disappointed if the price drops, but I had no right to “expect” it. Unfortunately the world of what we “expect” can fuse into reality without us realising. The root of all upsets is unfulfilled expectations so it is good to get them in perspective.

Preconceptions come from your own and others’ experience of people. The cultural depth of experience and strength of historic stories mean our filters are formed from generations of history.

The significant issue in this area is that our preconceptions naturally form and inform our actual experience of people – it becomes self-fulfilling. We have clever mechanisms to deal with exceptions to our preconceptions – we discount them.

It really takes something dramatic and conscious to drop our big preconceptions or biases and this usually needs to be combined with a continual “calling out” of the biased assumptions going on.

It also requires us to think and act counter to your own culture and not many of us, again by definition, are willing to do this.

Judgments and opinions

In addition you will make your own decisions and judgments about people and about life. It is a critical part of surviving and allows us all to deal with the complexity that life presents.

You make millions of decisions every day and most of them are super-fast. They will all be made logically and rationally (according to your logic anyhow) and, once you have reached these decisions, you will be most keen to keep to them.

We do not like changing our minds, so this gives you another lot of filters to see the world through.

So, should you avoid making judgments and sharing your opinions? Not at all. Embrace your intellect, your observations and your experience. Share them clearly and powerfully with an intent to empower and make a difference and you will find that you move away from objectivity and towards sagacity.

In HR, your voice is your tool and your weapon of transformation so sharing your views with full awareness of their subjectivity is important.

Elva Ainsworth

About Elva Ainsworth

Elva Ainsworth is CEO of Talent Innovations and author of Reboot Your Reputation: 11 Ways to Change Their Minds.
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