The world of performance management is changing. The latest thinking suggests that we shouldn’t have one (or 2) big performance reviews with our team every year, but an on-going conversation about performance all throughout the year. This is a change I completely agree with. The amount of time taken up with meaningless appraisals which go nowhere can be best put to other uses. This article, based on findings coming out of neuroscience, suggests 5 potentially revolutionary change to performance management conversations.

My own experience with performance reviews

I used to hate my own performance reviews. In all my ten years in corporate life, there was only one performance review which stuck out as alright. Every other performance review has now been filed away as a memory I want to forget. Not quite up there with child birth, but you get the picture.

Now my own poor experiences are not due to my line manager at the time. I think the collection of my line managers will also shudder when they think about giving me a performance review. I was a very difficult person to manage.  I’m a high achiever. Scrap that, I’m actually an incredibly high achiever. And like many incredibly high achievers, I don’t like failing. Or even the thought of failing. But the problem with performance reviews is that baked into every performance review process I’ve seen, read about, delivered myself OR had done to me is that there is always the point of the discussion which turns to ‘what haven’t you done so well’. This is an inherent problem and flaw in the performance review process.

What does negative feedback cause the brain to do?

When the brain is in a pleasurable state we are at our most effective. Positive feedback, helping someone feel significant, recognised and appreciated are all ways in which we can put someone’s brain into a pleasurable state. How you make someone feel as a manager really does matter. However, when we give someone critical or negative feedback or comment on ways in which they have not achieved, the opposite happens. Our brains will start to focus on the perceived threat, and focus on this at the expense of everything else. Can you see the problem with performance reviews in their typical format? Given that we all know the process, by delving into what hasn’t worked or where a person has ‘development’ areas or ‘weaknesses’ we start to reduce the impact and effectiveness of our conversation.

But surely a performance review needs to be balanced?

I’m not advocating a workplace culture where you brush all the problems underneath the carpet and try and forget about them. What I am advocating is a different process for performance reviews AND negative feedback or observations to be handled differently.

How to do ‘performance reviews’ differently and make them a significantly more productive conversation?

Change no. 1: Take the negative feedback OUT of the performance review

This is possibly a fairly radical concept for any manager or person who has had performance reviews done to them or done them for other people. My view is to take the negative feedback OUT of the performance review. Any negative feedback should be given at the time, not stored up until a performance review. Or trotted out again at a performance review. If you store up feedback it brings resentment and it will fester and most likely get blown up out of all proportion. So, the first key change is that any ‘developmental’ or ‘negative’ feedback needs to be given to the individual privately outside of the performance review and as soon as possible after the event, impact or trigger.

Change no. 2: Ask what support they need rather than development areas or weaknesses they have

I realise that some of you reading this will decide that I am talking about semantics here. But if you want your direct report to have their brain in the most effective state, i.e. pleasurable, then you need to make THEM feel significant, wanted, liked, recognised and appreciated. This doesn’t mean sweeping problems under the table. But it does mean switching the focus of the problem to ask them to take ownership for (a) the problem and (b) how you can support them to close the gap. Rather than telling them they need to deal with their weaknesses.

Change no. 3: Don’t call it a performance review

As soon as you mention the words performance review, it could potentially get someone into a defensive mode and looking for the perceived threat. This is a problem. And let’s not call it an appraisal either. How about an objective setting meeting? Personal performance meeting? How’s things going meeting? Alignment meeting? Whatever works for you and your team.

Change no. 4: Ditch any feedback sandwiches or feedback processes which invite you to share negative and positive feedback in the same sentence

When I worked at Procter & Gamble, they had something called a feedback sandwich, where you would share something positive, something good and something positive in that order. There are many other feedback routines along similar lines. The problem is that any feedback process where you share a positive and a negative piece of feedback, has the impact of the brain always waiting for the negative feedback. It just doesn’t listen to the positive feedback, it has already gone into a state of perceived threat and is waiting on the negative.

Change no. 5: Change the focus of the meeting to help the individual feel supported and significant

I run a small business and don’t have the luxury of letting my team go off and do their own things. So, I’m not advocating that in the performance review meeting you allow your team member to design their own role regardless of the needs of the business. Far from it! What I am advocating is that this meeting should be THEIR time to explore with YOU how you can support them to deliver on what the business needs from them. It should be time where you do the following:

  • Show them how valued they are, and what their contribution has helped the business achieve
  • Praise their achievements
  • Talk to them about the business direction going forward and the role you would like them to play in this
  • Agree with them on the targets the business needs them to achieve

Thank you to Dr Lynda Shaw for the knowledge on neuroscience and how the brain will react in a performance review.