Neuroscience of Better Performance Reviews

Give a better performance review through brain science

As we approach the end of the year, many organizations are in the process of the annual performance reviews. For most, both the reviewee and the reviewer, this trigger high levels of stress and anxiety. The reason is the performance review triggers in us the threat of social rejection.

Human survival depended on social acceptance and appeasement of the group. The worst outcome for our stone age ancestors was to be ostracized from the group. Ostracism was the Athenian term for being expelled from the city for 10 years.  Eviction from the group meant almost certain death.

Skip forward to our modern world and that fear of being rejected by the group, of being ostracized (fired from the organization) is still the driving force in our brains. Brain scans of people exposed to social threats show a remarkable similarity to scans of people experiencing social pain.

In a new fMRI study (April 2018) provides more insight into feedback giving and some clear indications of what to do and avoid.

  1. Positive feedback, in line with acceptance feedback, enhances mood.
  2. Negative feedback causes the activation of emotions (the threat response) where as positive feedback is related to the reappraising of feedback.
  3. Both negative and positive feedback activate the process of evaluating the relevance of feedback.
  4. Feedback that was found to be more applicable (negative and positive) was associate with better mood likely because the person recognized themselves in the feedback.
  5. The level of self-esteem impacted feedback and mood. The lower a person’s self-esteem the worse the resulting mood from feedback.
  6. People with high-esteem who described feedback as describing them well, thought more positively of their relationship with the reviewer.
  7. Low self-esteem people not only had trouble processing negative feedback, but also with integrating positive feedback and the connection to the reviewer.

What is clear from this latest research is the need to plan for the person you are providing feedback to. The power to demotivate increases. It is vital to understand the element of self-esteem and its part both in how you give feedback and how it is interpreted. Get it wrong and you risk the person feeling isolated and a negative personal relationship with them. Get it right and you capitalize on an opportunity to motivate, support, and build trust.

Get the research: When compliments do not hit but critiques do: an fMRI study into self-esteem and self-knowledge in processing social feedback