Actionable feedback – why language matters

by Dec 1, 2022

Why it’s important to give actionable feedback

Everyone deserves to get constructive, unbiased professional, and actionable feedback. But many don’t and it’s a problem.  

It seems incredible that whole careers can depend on written performance feedback which may be no more than 200-300 words, delivered annually. But in many cases, this is exactly what happens. Performance reviews and even routine feedback are subject to language bias and highlight how difficult it can be to bring about systemic change within organisations, where all groups are treated equally.

We all think that everyone deserves to receive constructive, unbiased professional feedback which will help them develop their careers. However, not everyone benefits from this basic process, which can be down to something as simple as vocabulary selection. We let our stereotyped expectations influence our vocabulary selection as  the dominant group sets organisational norms and behaviours.

Companies need to address the differences in feedback that they give to various individuals which can result in workplace inequity. The quality of feedback can impact promotion and growth opportunities, access to leadership roles, and even compensation.


Actionable feedback

Source: Textio

Research from Textio identifies clear patterns around which groups get less actionable feedback with a greater focus on personality. One group that this happens to is women and with it comes clear downsides.

Most managers have no idea they are falling into potentially discriminatory feedback practices. Still, unconscious bias in the workplace can mean they’ve unintentionally delivered poor quality and biased feedback to their reports or peers.

Learn more: How to create a bias-conscious workplace – 3 Plus International


actionable feedback

Who gets non-actionable feedback

Research from Textio shows that there are three primary groups that fall foul of non-actionable feedback

1. Women

Women receive 22% more feedback about their personality than men, even more so taking into account intersectionality. 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.

The term overachiever—typically applied to strong performers who exceed performance expectations is used to describe black women 40.5 x more than a white man.

Words used to describe women are:

  • Nice
  • Collaborative
  • Helpful
  • Opinionated
  • Over Confident
  • Ambitious
  • Warm
  • Bubbly
  • Abrasive
  • Aggressive

2. Employees of colour

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 colour are also more apt to be called “professional,” which can result from “covering” or “code-switching” when they change to fit in with the dominant group. This can be in speech and accent patterns, as well as their appearance.

3. Over 40s

Ageism is active in feedback for the older worker. Younger employees are 2 x more likely to be called ambitious. Older workers are described as “thoughtful,” “responsible” and dependable.”

Downsides of personality feedback

There are a number of downsides especially the impact on salary.

1. It is not objective

Feedback around an individual’s personality is highly subjective. We all receive and perceive behavior differently. One person’s dynamic approach is another’s “overwhelming.”  Good actionable feedback gives clear, concrete factual information, based on the quality of their work and their results.

2. Lacks an action plan

The best feedback comes with actionable tips which that person can implement to overcome a situational difficulty or improve in specific areas.

Rather than “Your abrasive mannner with your peers creates tension in the team”.


“I recommend you listen more actively before you interact with your team to find out what is going on for them. When we met with Tom last month Tom you seemed unaware that his new baby had been hospitalised. I suggest starting off with a few questions about them, which will help build up a higher trust environment.” 


why language matters

Free hidden inclusive language tips – 3 Plus International

How to handle this

  • Managers: can be intentional about the way they deliver feedback and focus on behaviour and results. Always provide actual examples. Recommend specific changes in that individual’s behaviour to produce more effective outcomes and a new way of approaching either a difficult situation or even a routine one that they consistently misjudge.
  • Individuals: if you find this happening to you – ask for specific examples, dates people involved, and ALL the detail. You may also run into another bias which is one situation is received as every situation. This is another area where women, black and Latinex people receive more exaggerated feedback than white, younger men.


Need support to cultivate an inclusive environment? Get in touch with 3Plus NOW 



Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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