Personality feedback is holding certain groups back
All stories

Personality feedback is holding certain groups back

Has a manager ever referred to you as “helpful”? What about “professional”? While this feedback may seem innocuous, it's actually problematic. These are examples of personality feedback: feedback that focuses on personal traits instead of a person's work output. And though it may seem harmless, it can negatively impact equity.

This type of feedback is given disproportionately to certain groups—and it comes with an opportunity cost. Textio’s recent report identifies clear patterns in who gets the most personality-based feedback. It’s often those who are most underrepresented in the first place. 

Why is personality feedback a problem?

Some managers might be surprised to hear that even positive feedback about a personality trait can be an example of bias in the workplace. After all, what’s wrong with calling someone “responsible” or “nice”? There are several factors that contribute to making personality feedback problematic:

It’s highly subjective

Judgments about a person’s personality are subjective. One person may see “assertive” where another person sees “bossy.” And there are often underlying stereotypes at play. The exact same scenario can and often does result in a man being referred to as “confident” while a woman may be called out as “too aggressive.” Good performance feedback is based on objective, quantifiable business results, not personal feelings and preferences.

It doesn’t provide an actionable path forward

High-quality feedback at work comes with examples and suggestions for ways to improve. Managers giving personality feedback rarely do that, delivering instead a subjective opinion in lieu of actionable advice. Not only does this not provide suggestions necessary for career growth, but because performance reviews impact who gets promoted and other opportunities, personality feedback puts employees at a significant disadvantage across many important career outcomes. 

Screen Shot 2022-08-10 at 1.34.09 PM

It’s given to some demographics much more frequently

Performance feedback should be equitable, meaning all employees receive the same amount of useful, high-quality feedback. However, personality feedback creeps into the reviews of women and some people of color more than others. These demographic inequities mean your most marginalized workers are more at risk of missing out on opportunities to grow in their careers. 

Personality feedback disproportionately affects women

Women receive 22% more feedback about their personality than men, even more so when we take an intersectional lens. There is also a contrast in the types of traits women are described as having compared to men. For example, women are twice as likely to be referred to as “collaborative” and 11x more likely to be described as “abrasive” than men. 

Personality feedback disproportionately affects employees of color

Black and Latinx employees receive 2.4x more feedback that’s not actionable compared to white and Asian employees. Black and Latinx workers also report being described as “passionate” 2.1x more often than white or Asian employees, which is often used as a euphemism for “can’t get along with others.” People of color are also more apt to be called “professional,” which can result from code-switching. Code-switching can cause anxiety, placing extra stress on employees of color and exacerbating stereotype threats. 

Personality feedback disproportionately affects workers over 40

Workers over 40 are also impacted by personality feedback, often hearing themselves described differently than their younger colleagues. For instance, people over 40 are more likely to be called “responsible” than their younger counterparts, who are 2.5x more likely to be described as “ambitious.” Who is more likely to get that next promotion—an employee thought of as “dependable” or one who is considered an “ambitious go-getter”? These words matter. 

It’s doubly hindering for some 

Not all employees receive the same amount of feedback. Some groups are receiving much less feedback than they should be. For example, Textio’s data shows that Black men receive the least amount of feedback compared to all demographics, 33% less than white women measured by word count. Now, imagine the impact on an employee’s growth trajectory when they already don’t receive enough feedback needed to improve and advance, and they finally receive some but it’s focused on their personality. They are already lacking the quantity of feedback needed to help them grow, and then the feedback they do receive lacks quality by being about their personality rather than their performance. How is that employee supposed to grow? 

What are examples of effective feedback? 

Feedback needs to be unbiased and free from harmful stereotypes, but in order for your feedback to be impactful and useful it should also be: 

  • Work-focused: Focus on performance. Stay open to everyone’s capacity to learn. Avoid harmful phrases. 
  • Clear: Long sentences and words can be difficult to read or process. Correct any spelling or grammatical issues in written feedback so the reader won’t get confused or miss your point. Speak clearly and have the employee confirm their understanding when giving verbal feedback. Being clear helps your feedback be accessible to everyone. 
  • Actionable: Always use specific examples and identify directions for growth so that each person gets the best chance to succeed.

Make sure your feedback meets these standards before delivering it to employees. If you need ideas for your next review, use one of these performance review templates as a guide.

The vast majority of managers would never intend to fall into biased feedback practices. Still, unconscious bias in the workplace combined with the complex nuances of personality feedback may mean they’ve unintentionally delivered low-quality (and biased) feedback to their team members. To ensure your team does better in the future, share the above tips for them to consider before they write their next performance reviews.

All stories
Get stories like these delivered right to your inbox.