Performance review – love it or hate it?

The perfect opportunity to engage your people and boost performance?

Sadly, performance reviews are all too often the source of grief for employees and managers alike, focusing on missed targets and shortcomings.

If an employee anticipates an adversarial review, they’re going to waste a disproportionate amount of time preparing their defence and gathering supporting evidence. Stress and negativity trigger the freeze, fight, flight response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline which shuts down our ability to think clearly and relate positively to others.

If the review does go badly a demoralised employee can spend days recovering from the negative effects – clearly undesirable in any workplace, putting the brakes on organisational growth and learning.

Friend not foe

There is another way. A strengths-based approach to performance reviews focuses on successes, learnings and things to do differently next time. This triggers the brains reward circuitry, unleashing insight, innovation and interpersonal ability. Businesses that adopt this approach are generally fulfilling places to work where individuals grow and the organisation prospers.

The naysayers amongst you may be wondering ‘what if the employee has under performed and needs to be pulled up’. The truth is that we are all our own worst critics and your criticism will only rub salt into the wound.  Recent research by the Neuroleadership Institute shows that 17 times out of 20, negative feedback (even when positively intentioned) does more harm than good as employees attempt to justify themselves, make excuses and blame others.  All this causes resentment on both sides and undermines performance still further.

Focus on what's been achieved and the potential of the employee (rather than criticising their current performance)

Solutions not problems

Focusing on problems and underachievement only embeds the behaviours you are trying to change, thereby having the opposite effect than you intend. In contrast, a solution-focused approach looks at what has been achieved and focuses on the potential of the employee (rather than criticising their current performance). It is progressive and forward looking, which is energising for all involved and is important for developing new brain networks that encourage personal insight and change, and feed the brain’s reward circuits.

Create a culture where your people’s brains can function at their best.


Are we happier at home or work? The answer might surprise you!

Where are YOU happiest? It can’t be at work… or can it?!

When I suggest that people are happier at work than at home, the usual response is utter denial. After all: don’t we look forward to our well-earned personal time?

Well yes, we do – but there’s a catch. While at work we’re more often engaged in activities, solving problems and enjoying achievements that result in increased overall fulfilment – and this isn’t necessarily true at home.

Leading psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a seminal study on happiness. He monitored the mood of thousands of subjects, from a variety of roles and backgrounds, on an hourly basis over the course of a year. His findings were overwhelming: people were happier at work than not.

Csikszentmihalyi asks, ‘What makes a life worth living?’ He suggests that money is not the key to happiness, finding instead that pleasure and satisfaction are achieved from activities that increase our state of ‘flow’. In this state we are fully immersed in what we are doing and experiencing feelings of absorption, engagement, skill and fulfillment.

After a shift at work our brain tends to shut down to conserve energy

During the transition from work to home we often take a dive and lose our sense of achievement. Generally speaking, at home we tend to slip into routines that don’t offer a sense of achievement or that state of flow. Instead we’re sucked into mundane chores of fixing dinner, putting the kids to bed or watching TV.

Why does this happen? Most of us don’t have the same formal process at home as we do at work. We’re more like Alice in Wonderland, drifting aimlessly – as the Cheshire Cat aptly stated: ‘If you don’t know where you want to get to, then it doesn’t matter which way you go’. In other words we amble along – rather than trying to achieve specific satisfying outcomes. But there’s more to it….

Equal measures of stretch and support keeps our brain in peak condition for optimal performance – in essence, achieving this balance is what good leadership is all about!

Flex your brain muscle

The brain is extremely energy hungry. Despite accounting for just 2% of our body weight it consumes a massive 20% of our entire energy consumption

Homo sapiens evolved at a time when food was a scarce resource, so our brain is designed to conserve energy by switching to autopilot, or ‘standby’ mode whenever it can (for example at the weekend).

At work, a good manager will be skilled at keeping the brain awake by ensuring employees are in the ‘flow zone’ – sufficiently stretching them to stay challenged. However, there is a delicate balance – too much stretch causes stress or anxiety and can severely reduce the brain’s operating potential. Not enough stretch and we quickly become bored or disengaged.

Get in the flow zone

Equal measures of stretch and support keeps our brain in peak condition for optimal performance – in essence, achieving this balance is what good leadership is all about!

The minute we clock off work our brain tends to automatically shut down to conserve energy, and we don’t have an “achievement” mindset or focus.

We justify this by saying to ourselves “I just need some chill-out time”. This is all well and good, however there’s a fine line between chilling out and boredom. All too often, well-deserved chill-out time turns into passivity, for example slumping down in front of the TV for hours at a time. This can breed feelings of dissatisfaction, despondency and even self-condemnation.

As we’ve seen, without a specific challenge, our default setting is ‘minimise effort’. Some people overcome this by engaging a coach. Left to our own devices we don’t stretch ourselves, our brain switches to autopilot and ultimately, we don’t achieve fulfilment and happiness. A good coach will provide stretch and support in equal measure – striking the balance between work and life contentment.


Wired to criticise – the neuroscience of self preservation

Are YOU guilty of dishing out more criticism than praise?

Every day I’m reminded to pay someone a compliment. I started this habit after much research into how people respond better to positive strokes and praise rather than criticism. This may seem blatantly obvious – but in reality it’s not so easy to practice.

This is because our default setting is to constantly scan for threats – up to five times a second in fact. This state of high-alert helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive against predators. In a modern society we don’t need to maintain such paranoia but unfortunately it takes more than 50,000 years to evolve – so for now at least, we’re stuck with our hunter-gatherer brains!

Don’t do what comes naturally!

Our brain is geared for survival – not happiness – therefore we have to learn to counter the constant vigilance for negativity and threat. My phone prompts me to do this every day – reminding me to offset my natural, inherent state and focus on the positive.

As a rule of thumb we should offer at least three praises to one criticism. Research shows that the highest performing teams thrive on nearly six positive comments to every negative one! Teams with lower ratios do not perform so well.

Praise and recognition for a job well done is extremely powerful but the positive effects can only be sustained if offered on a regular basis. Research indicates that employees who report inadequate recognition are three times more likely to say they will leave the following year.

Employees who report inadequate recognition are three times more likely to say they will leave the following year.

Won’t I sound fake?

Sceptical people often ask me whether praising people so often will sound fake, and my reply is always the same: it’s strange that a criticism never feels fake, but a compliment does! This is just more evidence of how our brains are geared to focus on the negative and gloss over the good stuff.  We take criticism to heart, but our frequent response to praise is to shrug it off.

At first, this level of praise may feel contrived, but like any new skill – the more you practice, the more natural it becomes. For praise to have maximum impact, it needs to be delivered effectively – the key is to be specific and genuine.  Generic appreciation such as ‘good work’ won’t reap the same benefits as ‘your persistence and hard work really paid off in winning this new account – well done

Positivity is contagious and good employee engagement programmes institutionalise best practice and positive thinking in the workplace. Praise and recognition cost nothing and studies from The Japanese National Institute for Psychological Sciences indicate they can even be as effective as giving a financial reward. Being praised triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. As well as making us feel good, dopamine also contributes to innovative thinking and creative problem-solving.

So praising people makes good business sense!