Spring has arrived, and with the appraisal meetings and performance ratings which often occur at this time of the year, it is a great moment to reflect on your organisation’s approach to performance management. In particular, what can neuroscience teach us about this vital aspect of leadership? We asked LDL consultant and PhD neuroscientist Dr. Maryam Bigdeli some questions…

LDL: So Maryam, we know that effective performance management is a priority for most organisations today. What does neuroscience have to say about the way organisations conventionally approach performance management?

Maryam: One of the most significant areas of research in the Neuroscience of Leadership concerns the brain’s threat and reward system. This is very relevant to performance management. In fact, some classical methods of performance management for example, such as the “carrot and stick” principle often do not lead to sustainable organizational change because, due to the way the brain works, fear-based “stick” activation can easily override the rewarding pleasure of the “carrot”.

In such situations, employees move towards biased decision-making patterns favouring immediate safety and conformity over creative thinking and innovative problem solving. This might have worked fine for the typical tasks of the early twentieth century workplace, where lateral thinking was not required. But for the 21st century organisation, this type of performance management drives the organisation away from innovation and collaboration and can result only in short-term performance improvement.

So relying on external systems of reward and threat, based on the carrot and stick principle, can actually be detrimental to the long-term success of an organisation today?

That’s right. Jobs have become more complex and self-directing – collaboration and innovation are now important focus areas – but carrot and stick reward systems tend to promote individual defensiveness and anxiety.

If the conventional carrot and stick principle won’t get the results we want, what should organisations be aiming for instead in their approach to performance management?

Once leaders understand that systems of reward and threat can narrow rather than broaden employee decision-making patterns, they should switch the focus of performance management to the pre-frontal cortex, which is in charge of goal-setting.

Through engaging this more creative, goal-setting part of the brain, leaders can help free employees from default emotional responses in a constructive and sustainable way, that promotes innovation, engagement and collaboration across the organisation.

So the aim is to get the pre-frontal cortex more involved in the performance management process?

Exactly. Making space for the pre-frontal cortex to work is critical.

Could you explain a little more about the neuroscience of why the activity of the pre-frontal cortex gets diminished, and how it can be made more active?

OK, let’s talk about two related brain systems: the basal ganglia or the impulsive brain – also referred to as the “habit brain” – which is activated when tasks become routine; and the amygdala or the “fear centre”, which is activated in new or unsettling situations.

Now human beings are born with fully functional basal ganglia and amygdalae. In safe environments where things are predictable the basal ganglia remains quietly in control, allowing space for the pre-frontal cortex to become active. However, in an environment where inconsistency and threat are present, the amygdala kicks more often which leads to an “anxious” brain that diminishes pre-frontal cortex function.

In many organizations, the traditional fear-based leadership style has a major influence on the culture, leading to poor performance and low innovation. To avoid this, we should instead be focusing on creating safe work environments where people are free to think creatively, collaboratively and with less anxiety.

Image by courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital and Draper Labs, via Wikimedia Commons

People are in the midst of annual appraisals at this time of the year. Could you talk to us a little about where feedback conversations fit into this picture of performance management?

Yes, so the conventional approach to giving feedback tends to involve addressing specific issues and metrics in a systematic way, where employees tend to feel like they are being critically judged on the basis of their performance. This results in activating the fight and flight response of the brain, leading to the “amygdala hijack” which promotes defensiveness and impairs rational judgement and deliberation.

Evidence shows that such methods do not really result in any performance improvement – rather, they set up a defensive dynamic where the employee seeks to defend themselves against negative judgement.

Instead of having the deep, reflective and insightful conversations that lead to real growth, people are primed for “avoiding threat”. Given the negative correlation between the executive or thinking brain and amygdala, these conventional feedback situations are simply not conducive to growth and learning.

Can we talk a little more about why this is, and what we should be aiming for instead?

One way of thinking further about this is to refer to Carol Dweck’s work on mind-set.

According to Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, a major problem with conventional appraisals which involve numbers and rankings is that they nourish the “fixed mind-set” as opposed to the “growth mind-set”.

The fixed mind-set implies that people’s intelligence and talent are established at birth and remain static. People are either smart or not, and there is not much to be done about it. The growth mind-set by contrast implies that people can learn and develop throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, the fixed mind-set is prevalent in many organisations today and is reflected in their approach to feedback and appraisals. As a result, people will tend to avoid difficult challenges, and stretch goals will be interpreted as a threat. This leads to high levels of anxiety, risk-averse behaviour, low productivity and lack of collaboration.

If you want high performing teams and organizations, you need to eliminate the destructive effect of conventional feedback conversations and replace them with a growth mind-set approach. Leaders need to recognize that with the appropriate context and conditions, employees’ skills and abilities can improve.

How would you go about improving performance in an organisation based on these ideas?

I might split it up into three stages.

The starting point might be educating your company’s leaders about how their own brains impact on their judgment and biases. Next, leaders need to understand how their feedback conversations can lead to the fight and flight response in their reports. Finally, leaders can be guided towards giving feedback with a growth mind-set – for example by seeing the potential in people, rather than just the quality of their current performance ratings – which leads to employee engagement and lasting performance improvement.

Thanks Maryam!

Maryam bio:
Maryam picture

Maryam is a behavioural neuroscientist and practitioner with over twenty years of experience working as a consultant and coach across a range of businesses globally. Maryam designs and runs LDL’s Neuroscience for Leadership programme – translating state of the art neuroscience into a helpful framework for managers and leaders.

Learn more about LDL Management and Leadership Training, or read related blog posts. We discuss the importance of cultivating a growth mindset in our post on “Black Box Thinking“, while in “How to Build the Perfect Team” we explain why teams benefit from psychologically safe environments.

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