Behind the science (and practical art) of fixing performance management

The science (and practical art) of fixing performance management

Conventional wisdom won’t be solving the critical “feedback problem” of performance management anytime soon, according to David Rock, who says it is time to help people build a more “brain-friendly” approach

In 2017, the NeuroLeadership Institute gathered more than 200 organisations to discuss the future of performance management. Our goal was to spend the day across what we thought were the six most important conversations: Goal setting, everyday feedback, check-ins, end-of-cycle reviews, compensation conversations, and career conversations.

Yet these 200 organisations, mostly already underway with continuous performance management strategies, had a very different idea. No matter what we discussed, every session kept coming back to one big problem that seemed to be at the heart of everything: Improving the quality of everyday feedback.

If people gave good feedback every day, goal setting would be more accurate, more agile, and more useful. There would be fewer surprises at compensation time, and career conversations would be a natural, ongoing process. And if someone had to be let go because of poor performance, this wouldn’t be a surprise. One recent study showed that 75 per cent of people who get fired say they had no feedback about their performance ahead of time.

Taking the pain out of feedback and performance management
There’s compelling research behind the feedback-first approach to performance management.

In one recent study, researchers explored data from 234 organisations to better understand which performance management practices drive business impact. They compared nearly a dozen techniques, such as cascaded performance goals, 360 feedback, calibration meetings, and so on, eventually finding that creating a culture of feedback was the most critical driver of positive organisational and financial outcomes.

“One recent study showed that 75 per cent of people who get fired say they had no feedback about their performance ahead of time”

However, the data suggests that most organisations are, in fact, missing the mark. Despite decades of trying to get managers to give better feedback, less than a third of employees receive the routine feedback they need to help them do their work better.

So how can an organisation facilitate a flow of quality feedback? In a phrase, solve for feedback with the brain in mind.

Performance management and minimising social threat
Traditional feedback conversations involve people giving their opinions unsolicited, which creates a persistent and pesky villain — the threat response. In these “fight or flight” moments the brain shuts down learning. Therefore, solving for the organisational feedback problem requires defeating this villain. We must ask ourselves: How do we make the experience of feedback less threatening?

Our hypothesis is that there is no approach to “giving feedback” that will address that fundamental problem in a deep enough way. No matter how you give feedback, the act of someone hearing unsolicited criticism reduces cognitive resources, right when they need them most. These resources aid in the cognitively taxing task of “mental contrasting” — a technique where people mentally compare the present to the past or future.

NLI’s research suggests that we need to rethink the conventional paradigm and focus much less on encouraging and training people to give feedback, and focus more on cultivating the habit of “asking for feedback.”

Putting the brain in the right state
NYU psychologist and NLI senior scientist Tessa West and her colleague Katherine Thorson, also of NYU, recently ran a study at a major Australian organisation that tracked people’s heart rates during mock negotiations. Afterwards, each participant took turns giving and receiving feedback. Certain groups were instructed to ask for feedback, while others gave it unprompted.

“We need to rethink the conventional paradigm and focus much less on encouraging and training people to give feedback”

The findings showed giving feedback was just as anxiety-producing as receiving feedback. However, when people received feedback that wasn’t asked for, their heart rates jumped around erratically. (Equivalent spikes have been found during some of the most stressful events, such as public speaking.)

Since stress causes a decline in cognitive function and a narrowing of the senses, to serve their crucial function of helping employees improve and grow, feedback conversations should avoid this threat response.

Based on this research, West believes asking for feedback could hold the power to make discussions around performance management less painful. When people know to ask for feedback, they feel in control. They feel psychological rewards of autonomy and certainty. They can steer the conversation wherever they choose and feel confident about which topics will get discussed. Givers also feel more certainty, because they no longer have to guess what kind of information will be most useful.

The “asking for feedback” approach makes the experience much less threatening for everyone involved in the performance management process.

Practically, these insights point toward a fundamental mindset shift to:

  1. Focus less on “fixing the giver” of feedback
  2. Focus more on “empowering the asker” of feedback
  3. Sustain the behaviour of asking over time, to maximise the quantity of feedback

Conventional wisdom won’t be solving the critical “feedback problem” of performance management anytime soon. We think it’s time to help your people build the “brain-friendly” approach of asking for feedback.

Image source: Depositphotos