Honest feedback plays a critical role in building cultural D&I

 Honest feedback plays a critical role in building cultural D&I

By Thane Bellomo

Organizations are modeled on the principle that competence is the primary factor in promotion decisions. This principle is a logical outcome of the reality that human organizations are primarily, and optimally, organized around competence hierarchies.

Competence hierarchies are formed as people rise in leadership ranks within organizations based on their competence to most effectively perform at the next level. Optimally, all organizations develop competence hierarchies, as people understand that organizations are most effectively led by people who are the most competent and qualified to lead. Everyone associated with an organization, from customers to shareholders to employees, wants the organization to be led by those most competent in order for the organization to have the best chance of success.

Given this reality, people want promotion criteria to be fundamentally based on competence. No one wants to see people promoted — and no one wishes to be promoted — because of criteria not linked to competence. People interested in promotions work and develop themselves so that they can be the most competent person available when promotion opportunities arise. Faith in the principle of “competence promotions” incentivizes individuals to develop themselves into the best candidate available.

This is where diversity and inclusion efforts to bring a more diverse group of candidates to the leadership table risk undermining the principle that the most qualified person should get the job. While the objective of increasing diversity in leadership ranks is necessary and overdue, diluting the principle that competence is the primary factor in promotion decisions can undermine people’s faith in the fairness of the system in which they work. This risks disengagement by some members of the workforce.

There are a number of interventions that can reduce this phenomenon that are rarely discussed in the context of D&I, but which are critically important to ensuring continued engagement in the advancement of a culture of diversity and inclusion. One of these interventions is timely and accurate feedback.

Consider the following example: A white male sales manager was passed over for promotion two times in favor of individuals of color. This sales manager had consistently been given feedback that he was extremely competent and had been given good reviews on his performance. Previously, he had seen what he — and others — believed were promotion decisions based primarily on characteristics other than competence. This led him to believe that his failure to get promoted was based not on his competence shortcomings, but rather on the fact that he was not a candidate from a historically underrepresented group. This was not accurate, as the selected individuals were highly competent. However, his belief that he was passed over due to characteristics versus competence led this previously identified “top talent” salesperson to disengage and become a poor performer.

The failure of the organization, in this case, turned out to be that this employee had not been given honest feedback on his gaps and shortcomings. He was unaware that he had reasonably significant gaps in his performance and experience that precluded his selection.

This demonstrates that failure to provide accurate, timely and critical feedback to employees on their gaps and development opportunities can erode confidence in D&I initiatives in an organization, leading some candidates to believe that the process is not based on competence and is unfair. Operating in what one believes to be a rigged game leads to disengagement and the loss of the capacity of that individual to contribute to the success of the organization.

When people lose faith in the principle of competence promotions, they are disincentivized to engage in developing themselves to be the best candidate available. We have seen what happens when people do not have faith in this principle through the experience of women and people of color in the workforce. And this is exactly why organizations are working to ensure that promotion decisions are not influenced by bias. The disengagement of candidates from underrepresented groups because they had no faith in the fidelity of promotion decisions has been historically extremely costly. When underrepresented talent candidates are disengaged, organizations lose out on the capacity of those individuals to contribute to the success of the organization.

As we continue to strive to increase the representation of diversity in leadership ranks, we must ensure that everyone in the organization has faith in the fidelity of the competence hierarchy, lest we disengage talent in the workforce. Once people begin to believe that promotions are not driven by competence, they will begin to question every promotion decision — even when that decision is not driven by anything other than competence criteria.

Here are several recommendations for ensuring your workforce maintains trust in the underlying fairness of your organization’s promotion decisions:

  • Ensure that promotion decisions are based on competence and are in no way based on other criteria.
  • Be transparent about how we define competence for given roles. Competence can be defined in any way the organization wishes, including technical competence, emotional intelligence, leadership capacity and so on.
  • Ensure leaders understand the career aspirations of employees so they can effectively coach and develop them toward those roles.
  • Develop mechanisms to ensure that leaders are giving accurate and timely feedback to employees on their performance and developmental gaps.
  • Hold leaders accountable to giving timely and accurate feedback.

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Originally Posted On ChiefLearningOfficer.com

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