Performance feedback and the brain

It’s been said that the quickest way to put people under stress is to say: “Here’s some feedback.”

We are told by neurophysicists and others who study brain development and our social intelligence systems that our brain is largely emotional. Even the most rational among us have active primal emotional systems in the mid-brain that keep negative emotions in check. These are emotions such as fear, anxiety and anger. (Many would say that anger is an expression of fear.) For others, these emotions are not well-regulated and life can be an emotional roller coaster, much to the bemusement of those around them who keep emotions in check.

The nature-nurture debate seems to have been largely resolved now, as we have a substantial body of research to show the interplay of genes and environment on what becomes a unique neural network development in each individual’s brain. While it is true that we all have the same instincts and brain development systems, we form interpretations of events that become hardwired in our unique neural networks, and in turn colour our interpretation of future events.

We carry this with us into the workplace and can be hyper-sensitive to, OR seem completely immune to, interpersonal work situations.

In conversations with managers over the last few weeks, their people management challenges were described as the following:
1. People lose their temper, not only with colleagues but also with seniors. (This not only causes upset to the people at the receiving end, it triggers stress responses in others.)
2. People display aggression that appears to others to be out of kilter with the situation – bordering on rage.
3. People cannot handle negative feedback.

I am quoting here. The term “negative feedback” is one I choose not to use due to the meaning it has acquired. I just prefer to use the term feedback – if you have to differentiate then see it as either change feedback or positive feedback. After all, feedback is about opinion. It may even be more than one person’s opinion. But the only person’s opinion that counts is the person whose performance is being commented on. If they don’t “get it” no opinion will change their behaviour in the desired direction.

Even tangible results can’t be relayed as absolute fact as there could be external factors affecting results that a person has no control over. And people can be very creative with what they attribute failure to – we all can! So, having the person see their behaviour the way others do is key to behaviour change – and how can they see what others see without constant, rich situation-feedback?

It is because we don’t create feedback-rich environments that people end up with a warped sense of their value and contribution. So who’s really at fault here? It is the fact that we don’t stop someone losing their temper the first time it happens that they learn this as a pattern of interaction, and become more and more extreme in their behaviour. There is a two-year old in all of us, looking for the boundaries. (Maybe with some people more than others, that two-year old seeks expression.)

People are what they are due to a history of experiences that they bring into the workplace. Then the workplace either reinforces that person’s learned views about people, or challenges them.

To change people’s behaviour, research suggests that there are some key success factors:
1. There has to be a relationship of trust with someone they admire. This “coach” figure can go a long way to correct distorted views the person has about themselves and/or their environment.
2. There has to be systematic, regular performance discussions so that these are a fundamental part of the person’s work experience
3. Finally, the “coach” has to be congruent with their own communication and this is about self-awareness. Without this, this person may unwittingly be causing intense stress for the people they manage.

I see evidence of this stress all the time. Staff tell me about managers who:
– give confusing instructions
– don’t seem to know what they want but then are generous with their criticism when they don’t get it
– think people are mind-readers.

We’ve all been there at one time or another on both sides of that equation. The only answer that will keep us all sane is to admit we are human, fallible and with limited vision. We only see some of the information, some of the time. So does everyone else. Only by pooling our views with others do we start to build a picture from which we can start making some accurate calls.

Here’s what to do:
1. Let staff know you are human and have only one perspective…..but that you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t tell them your views. Acknowledge they have a view as well.
2. Listen. Don’t judge. But be consistent and firm with your view – you are representing not YOU but the organisation and clients. (Whoever is paying the bills including payroll; either sponsors or clients.)
3. Form a performance partnership – equal but different in contribution. This way, you can both be your at your best in what is, let’s face it, an incredibly demanding work situation. Without it, neither of you is completely doing what you are there for.
4. Like every important relationship, set up a regime of catch ups; once a month at least, for one-on-one time. (For some it may need to be more frequent e.g. sales people who need support for what can seem at times to be a soul-destroying job!)

When you are up to speed with this, then raise your expectations of people and watch the brilliance emerge – the oft-quoted Pygmalion effect.

Cherri Holland


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
This entry was posted in B2B (Brain to Brain) communication. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Performance feedback and the brain

  1. Tezza says:

    Cherri I think that the points you make are spot on – I would also add that to create a relationship of trust between employee and senior is key and that can only be done through a regular, fair and consistent process. That trust is not created over night or because “i tell you so” but rather through a transparently clear desire to help and improve.

    • It is something we don’t put enough emphasis on with leaders. The environment of mistrust takes its toll on everyone and is very counter-productive for businesses. We have the research now to prove that staff are less creative, resourceful and their thinking quality is nowhere near what it could be when they are uncertain and stressed. Why pay people to be in the organisation, then manage them in a way that they are not performing at their best – makes no sense! And the boss can’t fake being trustworthy either! People see right through that. It has to be genuine.

      We still have a long way to go in our organisations, it would seem, yet it is something that is well within the leader’s control to put right. With all the uncertainty in the market place you would think we would put right what we CAN control!

      Thanks for the comment. Anything in particular you are interested in that I should cover in future?


Leave a Reply to Cherri Holland Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s