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The science of feedback: what does it take to be really inclusive?

Posted on 27 October 2020

Male, pale and rather stale workforces: is inequality lurking in your feedback? 

Professor Zeinab Aboutalebi’s research has shown that this is often the case.


Professor Zeinab Aboutalebi joined the EUI Economics Department this September.

The microeconomist specialises in how the way we gather and disseminate information shapes organisations. Her latest focus has been the intersection of feedback and diversity.

Her findings show that the feedback given to employees from less represented groups is often more reflective of inequality than the actual quality of their work.

Organisations have become increasingly eager to be seen as diverse, publicly boasting about the percentage of women and ethnic minorities that make up their workforce.

However, managers who do not align with the company’s pro-diversity stance spell trouble for minority applicants.

In an attempt not to appear discriminatory, managers who do not value diversity will hire less able women and applicants from ethnic minority groups. Once the diversity box has been ticked, sabotaging and unhelpful management means the “diversity hire” is doomed to fail.

“Either they fail themselves, or they fail because nobody is helping them,” Prof. Aboutalebi states.

In the meantime, however, the sabotaging manager is able to build a reputation as a person in favour of diversity, allowing them to move up the corporate ladder to a place where they can practice their preferred level of inclusion.

Feedback is often a key component in this process. Biased and unhelpful feedback hinders employees from making any meaningful progress. It is a game that sees women and ethnic minorities at a disadvantage: “their ability to go up the ladder, to get promoted, depends on how pro-diversity the managers are,” she says.

Confidence is also a key component in shaping feedback. It’s a dynamic steeped in gender issues.

“In one of my research boards we looked at feedback and how receiving [it] actually affected the performance of the agents. What it showed is that depending on how self-confident people are, the type of feedback they receive differs”. Prof. Aboutalebi’s findings have shown that employees who are perceived as being more self-confident are given more honest feedback, which allows them to improve their work and progress their career.

With women on average being found as having less confidence in their ability, they receive less honest feedback, making it harder to advance in their career.

Yet again, shattering the glass ceiling becomes an elusive task.

For Professor Aboutalebi age-old stereotypes can set off a vicious circle. “For many years there was this belief that women were not good at mathematics or problem solving” she says. “People then start to self-select into other professions, this [belief] gets reinforced and once you believe this is who you are, it is very difficult to start doing something everyone believes you will fail at.” It triggers self-doubt and lowers self-confidence, ultimately leading to inaccurate feedback, as her research has shown that managers give less accurate feedback to less confident employees.

Professor Aboutalebi is no stranger to navigating the pitfalls of feedback. As an Iranian female academic working in the male-dominated field of economics, she has learnt to keep her guard up. “I need to place the signals I get in the framework I developed; deciding on the quality of the feedback.” she says.

Structured, objective and high quality feedback is crucial in climbing up the ladder. Without it, diversity risks being whittled down to ticking boxes.