Six words you hate hearing at work

“I have some feedback for you.”

Most people react viscerally when someone says that to us because we fear we’re about to be skewered and spit roasted over the scorching fire of character assassination personal appraisal.

Immediately, your brain’s alarm centers roar into action to face the threat. Maybe you get clammy hands, moist upper lip, increased heart rate and dilated pupils. Maybe it’s dry mouth and sweaty armpits.

Your hypothalamus releases chemicals to your pituitary gland which releases hormones to your blood, one of which activates the release of stress chemicals from your adrenal glands on your kidneys, the levels of which are monitored by the hypothalamus which will adjust accordingly, closing the feedback loop.

This is to help you manage the threat that’s bearing down on you.

All for these six words.

And then we make it worse

As if “feedback” isn’t bad enough by itself, we then formalize it into the once a year, Annual Performance Review. It sometimes goes by an alias, but you know what it is. You might even know when your next one is. Maybe you’re even preparing for it.

Our brains are far more readily attuned to threat than reward, to loss than gain, so getting ready for “feedback” requires us to overcome some significant biological constraints in order to take it constructively. Research out of Kansas State University suggests that nobody likes negative feedback reviews, even those who love to learn for the sake of learning.

Lead researcher Satoris Culbertson, assistant professor of management, notes that motivation, commitment and performance can all be affected by negative feedback, and managers need to be mindful of the impact of their feedback.

But feedback is a two-way street

To be fair, many managers and colleagues don’t like having hard conversations like this, and giving negative feedback can be extremely unpleasant. Moreover, it can be difficult to give feedback knowing that the person on the receiving end may be tying themselves in all kind of emotional knots, and particularly if you have a good personal relationship with them.

That said, being open to feedback from your manager or a colleague requires significant trust in them, insofar as you trust them to be honest and compassionate at the same time, while providing information that is for your benefit and given without strings or fish hooks. It’s no mean feat.




Feedback and politics

In fact, research from Rice University shows how the social environment can either encourage or inhibit that feedback. Jisoo Ock, lead author and Rice doctoral candidate in psychology, notes that “anecdotal evidence has shown that interpersonal political considerations are nearly always a part of the employee review process.”

Managers are, by and large, genuinely concerned about motivation, commitment and performance and can tend to avoid accurate but low ratings to minimize the negative consequences on the employee and, therefore, the business. Ratings are frequently clustered at the higher end, softening the blow for the employee, but at the same time shortchanging them of valuable information and the company of higher performance and better productivity.

It’s worse for colleagues.  When asked to score a co-worker’s performance, the social context plays a major and singularly discomfiting role. In short, we rarely like to criticize our friends, especially if we have to keep working together.

We’re usually not set up for it

What often makes these conversations difficult is not always the nature of the conversation, but the organizational structures that lead to them. Having a once a year performance review asks you to present, in an hour or so, compelling information and examples from the past year to evidence your outstanding performance.

Moreover, because organizations usually favor some kind of rating system like a 1-5 score, or something like ‘achieved below expectations’ through to ‘exceeded expectations’, we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve received or delivered an objective evaluation.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece recently arguing that ratings perhaps reflect more of the employer than the employee, and that they do more harm than good, sometimes for months after the rating. According to WSJ, execs however, still like them. Every year they get a view of how people perform against each other, keeping a healthy tension between employees’ performance, while allowing rewards to be distributed equitably.

Distributing rewards on this basis assumes that the ratings are accurate, not gamed by the employee or employer, not subject to internal politics and environment, and are an accurate and objective analysis of performance when assessed only once, or maybe twice, a year.

Preparing for the Annual Performance Review is best done all year, by carefully collecting artifacts for your performance portfolio while matching them against your position description and performance targets with an appropriate commentary.

It’s just that most people don’t do this, and most managers don’t keep track either. Consequently, when we get to the Annual Performance Review, we’re forced by the vagaries of memory to build an entire review on standout highlights or lowlights and/or recent evidence, all of which are affected by significant, unacknowledged cognitive biases.

We’re left with a blunt instrument that lacks the subtleties and finesse required to actually improve performance.

Getting decent, accurate, useful feedback

Imagine a top sports performer, it doesn’t matter who. Then imagine that their coach sits them down once a year and they discuss how they each think the player has performed in the past year. They have only one hour, and the outcome will determine if the player still has a job, and how much they will earn on top of salary in the next 12 months. This will come down to a score out of 5.

Sounds silly when you put it like this, no?

A top sports performer will get regular, frequent and immediate feedback on their performance, so that they can make the continual small adjustments necessary to improve performance. Constructive feedback given regularly like this overcomes the brain’s perception of threat created by the Annual Performance Review and facilitates an accumulation of evidence with which performance can be more accurately measured.

So here’s the take home bit

Change is easiest when it’s small. Incremental changes are easier to make than large change, and can more easily overcome the brain’s threat response.

So, performance needs regular input, with frequent coaching. Performance reviews are best done as an accumulation of small steps, rather than as a one-off attempting to cover the whole year.

What do you think?

For more on this, drop us a line at the Brain Fitness Institute.

Key words

Annual Performance Review, coaching, brain, threat response, performance

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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