success maze to cheese

Performance Management – threat state to the brain

Neuroscience-Based Leadership and Culture Change Coach | Building Resilience in People, Teams and Organisations

There has been quite a lot published recently about performance management and in particular about removing performance ratings.

At its core, managing performance is about ensuring that both employers and employees match how we work in today’s world. This also requires some robust discussion around whether competencies, which have been a mainstay of leadership development for the past 20+ years, are still the best way of assessing people relative to contemporary business needs.

If we look at some of the basic elements around performance management from a brain-based perspective, there are some interesting considerations.

Even mentioning the words ‘performance’ and ‘management’ together sends the brain into a threat state. It might be low level for some and higher level for others depending on a complex mix of past experiences and current state. And a lot of that complex mix is non-conscious too, so, people aren’t even necessarily aware of it. Think about that…you haven’t even had a conversation about anything yet, just mentioned two words!

Then when we add in numerical ratings or ranking which trigger issues of status, fairness and trust that can again be counter-productive and generate conflict and competition. The opposite of what a performance conversation is intended to do. Knowing that others have been ranked higher than you triggers the amygdala – and in extreme instances causes an amygdala hijack.

So, when we may want to be open to possibility and opportunity and in a curious state of mind, it’s impossible. You can’t be in a ‘curious’ state of mind and a ‘threat’ state of mind at the same time. Threat trumps reward. And, what’s likely to happen in a hijacked state is that we demonstrate unproductive behaviours like push back around feedback and resistance to setting stretch targets.

And, add to that mix a performance management cycle in many organisations that is, at best, twice yearly, often annually. Relying on one or two conversations per year to discuss the immediate past, present and future performance for a person is a very heavy load for one or two conversations to bear.  It doesn’t bode well for generating a sense of belonging, inclusion and engagement. Our social brain needs really aren’t getting met.

It is not a case of simply saying that people need to have more conversations. Let’s face it, if managers or staff are having 1 or 2 conversations a year that are ‘painful’, they are not likely to be excited at all about the prospect of increasing that number. At its heart, moving from your existing performance management system to an alternative that emphasizes more frequent and ongoing sharing of insights and feedback is a system change. This requires patience and persistence.

If you are considering removing performance ratings and rankings to a more contemporary performance system (and I really hope that you are) here are some questions to consider and discuss:

  • Do we currently have quality conversations about performance in our organisation?
  • How do we increase the quality of conversations that people are having?
  • What is the appropriate conversation frequency for our organisation?
  • How can we make sure that the process is flexible and agile and not just a tick and flick?
  • Do we have an appropriate focus on manager accountability?
  • Do we make the health and strength of the manager-direct report relationship a core KPI?
  • Have we implemented a robust change management process to support what will inevitably be a multi-year endeavour?
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