S 5 E10

August 23rd, 2021

EPISODE 10: Continuous Performance Management in an Ambiguous World

Welcome to the Season 5 finale of Your Brain at Work Live. Performance management is a huge topic throughout work in general, but it’s faded somewhat recently due to COVID, hybrid approaches, and other concerns of leaders. We come back and revisit performance management as part of the talent ecosystem in this season finale, with David Rock, Marshall Bergmann, and Christy Pruitt-Haynes.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:05] SO: Performance management is more than just the begrudging once a year meeting that everyone dreads. It’s centered around talent, feedback, and goal setting. These are topics still in business, but it’s easy to forget just how important they are. Because in the last few months, we spent so much time on hybrid approaches, de-escalation, COVID, and more. But in reality, all of what’s happening now is a performance issue. While today’s climate is one of ambiguity, continual people-focused forms of performance management are ripe for the current environment and beyond. 


I’m Shadé Olasimbo, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the Neuroleadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. You can find this and all our recorded webinar episodes on our YouTube channel at youtube.com/neuroleadershipinstitute. This is the season five finale. We’ll be back in a few weeks. But on this episode, our panel consists of NLI’s CEO and cofounder, Dr. David Rock; Marshall Bergman, NLI’s Senior VP of Corporate Solutions; and the facilitator and consultant for the Neuro Leadership Institute, Christy Pruitt-Haynes enjoy.




[00:01:30] DR: Welcome, Christy, to your first Your Brain at Work. And Marshall, good to have you back. Look forward to digging into today’s topic, performance management in an ambiguous world. Speaking of ambiguous, as an Australian who moved to New York, it’s been a – I’d be getting whiplashed. Do I want to be here? Do I want to be there? Do I want to be here? Do I want to be there? It’s really hard to say. Right now, I’m very happy to be in North America where I have called home for the last 10 years and will for some time. 


But anyway, this crazy, ambiguous world that we’re living in, how do we think about managing performance? We’re going to start with some of the big picture ideas around this issue, and then really dig into what we think is the most important thing to work on. So just for those of you new to NLI or new to the podcast, just a little bit of context about us. We are 23 years old this year as an institute, and we’ve been publishing a lot of original research since that time, over 50 peer-reviewed academic research papers, advising over half of the Fortune 100, and very much a global organization. A pretty big team in APAC covering all of Asia Pacific, and a pretty big team in Europe as well covering that whole region as well as North America. So we do a lot of work with global organizations, as well as the research we do. A lot of our work, consulting work is with organizations who are really very much everywhere. And it’s given us a really interesting perspective on things. 


Speaking of perspective, just to give you some context on performance management. So performance is one of our three big practices. The other being DEI, which we’ve talked a lot about, as well as culture and leadership, which we talk a lot about, but performance is actually our oldest and deepest practice. We were quite central in the whole movement to continuous performance management. In terms of all the consulting and the research on moving away from ratings and towards just better conversations, we published four really significant industry research pieces. You can see the top of the screen there. And then about a dozen research papers that are really central to developing a more evidence-based strategy for performance. So it’s been very much a part of our heritage, our history for the longest time. In fact, I think we first started helping improve the way managers give feedback in literally the year 2000. So we have a 21 year history of being involved in performance management indirectly all the way back since then. 


So it’s an area we really thought about for a long time. Although we have a bigger DEI practice these days, it’s still a really, really important part of our work. And some of the work we’ve done, not just in building skills, but also getting strategy has won some exciting awards with Cigna, for example. And a number of other projects have been interesting landmarks that have been studied by many, many other firms. I think my personal peak moment in this practice was walking around Disney’s headquarters in LA and seeing a whole feedback strategy we’ve develop with them literally up on flags flying everywhere around Disney’s campus. It was a beautiful moment. 


We’ve written a lot about this space. Some of you would have read these pieces. The kill your performance ratings was one of the most widely shared and read piece for strategy and business ever. We’ve dug into bias. We’ve done a lot into what really happens when companies go no ratings. We’ve dug into a lot of these different issues as well as more specifically into feedback, and goal setting, and other things. 


But today we’re not going to talk so much about ratings or no ratings. It’s not really a big focus here. It’s more like kind of where are we and where do we need to go next? And for that conversation, I really want to hand it to Christy to take us away through the evolution of performance management. Kind of set the scene. And then we can get a little bit more into the science in a bit more detail.


[00:05:10] CPH: Thank you, David. And it’s been really interesting to see how performance management has changed over the years. And we are continuing to see a change even today. So we know that, historically, if we look back many years ago, and I would love to say I wasn’t here for all of these, but unfortunately I experienced most of these times. When we think back in the 50s, performance appraisals were very much about ratings and how someone is doing, and really looking at that historical look. How you performed over the past year? 


We also have to think a bit about the population that was working at that time. That was what I like to call the gold watch generation, meaning individuals would typically join an organization and stay there for the duration, or at least the majority of their career. It also made managers very responsible for remembering what has happened over that past year and was very much a backwards look. As we move ahead in time, we get to the pay for performance portion of the continuum. And what really happened there is there was a strong link between compensation and performance ratings. The downside to that is we know that doesn’t serve as the sole driver of performance. And unfortunately, a lot of organizations truly believed if we link compensation directly to performance, that’s going to cause employees to want to stay with us. And data shows us that’s simply not the case. It’s one of the factors, but by no means the primary driver of success. 


Moving ahead to force distribution rankings, the interesting thing there is that ultimately demotivated so many employees. While that wasn’t the goal, that was oftentimes the result. What force distribution rankings really does is it forces organizations to say, “We’re only going to say 10% of our employees are top performers,” or whatever number they pick. And what we’ve seen happen with that is, if you weren’t part of that chosen 10%, it starts to make you think why even bother. So unfortunately, what was designed to be a motivator and designed to really assess someone’s performance ended up having that opposite effect. That pushed us into the era of no ratings, which was starting to acknowledge and starting to get to where we need it to be. But unfortunately, it didn’t emphasize what we ultimately needed. And that’s the idea around continuous performance management. 


And what continuous performance management really does is it acknowledges the fact that employees want ongoing feedback. I don’t want to know how I did 12 months ago. I want to know how I’m doing today, and how I’m doing next week, or did last week. So because of that, we say the majority of organizations out there, as much as 85%, really moving towards a change in their system. And it’s been really interesting and a positive thing. So as we’ve seen employees change, fortunately, performance management systems have changed along with them. 


And it’s happening for several different reasons. So part of it is we realized our past systems did not truly acknowledge what was driving employee performance, and oftentimes cost a lot of time and money, those two resources that no organization wants to waste, but didn’t drive performance. So when we invest in something but don’t see that return, it indicates it’s time to look at things a little differently. 


The biggest part of that is it didn’t necessarily align objectives and performance ratings. What I mean by that is, oftentimes when we looked at performance ratings of the past, it focused a lot on whether or not someone accurately did their job, but didn’t at all factor in what the organization as a whole was trying to do. And we see so many organizations who have a culture of, say, innovation, or creativity, but it was always hard to measure that on a performance appraisal system. So a lot of the things that were really valued were never properly represented in those formal systems. But when we think about the systems that we’re able to use today with continuous performance management and that ongoing feedback, we can capture it in a much better way. 


The last thing I want to really highlight here is traditional systems were bogged down with so many potential issues, everything from bias, which David alluded to earlier, creeping in, to just the fact that if you’re evaluating performance from a year ago, you simply won’t remember it. So it was a flawed system to begin with and trying to make the attempt to have a flawed system really serve the employees and really serve the organization never quite came to fruition. 


So instead, we see this continuum that we’re now on. And we can see how the performance management systems have changed through the years. We’ve gone from being very process-focused and having quote a lot of people consider those check the box moments just saying, “Yes, we had this conversation. I’ll see you in a year.” And now we’re moving more towards the people. I like to think of it as going from the what. So what did you do? To focusing on the who. Who are you? What motivates you? What skills do you want to develop? 


So we’re seeing this continuum continue, and really want to now look at some of the things that have happened traditionally with those process-focused. We saw when those were happening most, leaders, department heads, managers, really served as almost judge and jury. There was a real assertion that I’m going to just put the hammer down and let everyone know this is what you did a year ago. This is what you accomplished. This is what you did. So again, it was very much focused on that what. What did you accomplish? 


We’ve seen the systems move towards more of an advisory role, which is better than judge, absolutely, but still not quite focused on the individual. With those leaders serving as advisors, it was very much around we just need to retain our talent. And then we can move into coaching, where it’s all about the quality of the employee. It started to align the talent that we see in our employees and that business strategy. So we’re starting to see a little bit of the link, but it still has a bit of a backwards focus as opposed to focus solely on going forward and that future focus with our people. 


So now as we look more to that individual or people-centered approach, it becomes very much about serving as that culture coach. How can we perform better? How can we provide our employees the day-to-day feedback that they need to continue to excel? We really believe that focus on growth, that focus on forward momentum, is what’s really going to push the overall performance management system ahead, and is really going to ultimately serve not only the employee, but the organization. So there have been a lot of changes in the systems. And ultimately, the goal has been to move towards having these more complete conversations that David that’s going to tell us more about now.


[00:12:51] DR: Thanks, Christy. That’s great. Yes, it’s really interesting. As I’m listening to you, I’m reflecting on the continuum and the changes. And certainly there are still some companies very much on the left of this, companies kind of all over the place. I think as an overall movement, it’s moved towards the right, but there are kind of forward-thinking companies that are there on the right. There’s still plenty in the middle, and so quite a few probably over on the left as well. So it’s really interesting. And every time we’ve talked about performance management for the last 20 odd years, everyone anchors on the compensation piece. And it’s one of those things that it’s like easiest to think about. It’s the most salient. It’s the most concrete, most tangible, and it’s the most upsetting when it’s wrong. Like when pay is wrong, it creates a strong threat reaction. But we don’t think that getting paid for performance right is the place to focus. 


In fact, this may surprise you, but pay for performance, like really getting pay for performance right has very little impact on actual performance. It’s statistically insignificant. And when we looked at it a few years ago, like teaching people to set stretch goals as opposed to normal goals gave you something like a six times greater bump in actual performance than pay for performance and cost you very little. So there’s all this focus on getting the comp right. But when it comes to actually getting performance improved, it ends up being more about reducing unfairness that actually increasing performance. And so we want to minimize the work that’s going in. If it’s not really increasing performance, we want to kind of minimize what that is. 


The last thing I’ll say on that just in summary is pay tends to be pretty good for retaining people, but not for motivating or increasing performance. So pay for performance does have a link to retention, but not much of a link to the other thing. So we can dig into that if we have more time towards the end. 


Here’s what we at NLI think matters the most, and that is getting the compensations right. Pay for performance is one piece of it. Getting your strategy right is one piece of it. But ultimately, where most performance management systems fail, we believe, is that people don’t have the right kinds of conversations at the right frequency the right way. And it’s literally the quality of conversations is not where they need to be. And sometimes the technology solutions that are put in place actually inhibit conversations. There are a lot of technology solutions that kind of make people feel like they don’t have to speak it out. It’s kind of all done with this tech. But the conversations about performance are very personal, very challenging quite often. And they really need to be human to human interactions, we believe, at least some of them, some elements of performance can be digitized. But a lot of it needs to be really human conversations, because they’re some of the most charged issues. 


So philosophically, we believe the place to get this right is not pay for performance. It’s not necessary getting the strategy right. It’s not the technology. The place to invest is in getting people to have better conversations. We think that’s the best return on investment. And let’s have a look at what our data says on that. Like why do we think that? 


We’ve done a lot of industry research in this space. So we looked at how often people actually have conversations. So setting goal is pretty low, check-in is higher, formal assessment is pretty low, career, very, very low. So how often people are having these things? Setting goals almost annually? Check ins, maybe quarterly. Interesting. Now you look at how often would you like to have these? So people would like to be setting goals more than quarterly, right? They’re kind of getting them annually, but they’d actually like to be doing them between quarterly and monthly, right? So a really big gap there. That’s a quantity of conversation. 


What about check-ins? Actually, they’d like a lot more check-ins. They’d like a lot more formal assessments. They’d like a lot more great conversation. So it’s a really, really big gap. Here’s the really terrifying gap. When you ask managers how often they think they’re having them? You get an entirely different story. So if you ask managers, “How often are you setting goals? They say, “Well, actually, they’re setting it weekly,” but the employee thinks that they’re setting them annually. How often are you doing check-ins? They think it’s weekly. The employee thinks that something else. So a manager might just categorize informal conversations as a real goals check-in, but there actually is a big difference. There’s quite an important difference. 


There’s this huge gap between what the manager thinks is happening. What’s actually happening and what the employee really wants? And so when you look at this, we think this is where the biggest gap is that could be addressed. You need a lot more conversations is the cliff note. Now, we introduced this idea a few years ago. We realized that it would be really helpful to kind of organize all the different kinds of conversations and kind of standardize it. So we ended up on this. You might have different language. You probably do in your companies. You’ve got different kind of frames and words. But for us, this is just kind of something we’ve standardized that helps us when we do consulting for companies to help them build this strategy. Here it is. Goal setting should be variables. Not many jobs should be annual. Like twice a year, at least quarterly and often monthly these days. Feedback should be a constant thing and every week thing. Check-ins should be probably monthly. End of cycle, well, it depends on the goal cycle. Compensation and career conversations, obviously, once a year, maybe twice a year, maybe even more. But we’ve been doing a lot of research kind of on these six conversations. Christy, anything you want to weigh in there?


[00:18:05] CPH: Absolutely. So what’s interesting here, and we have to think a bit about the feedback portion. When individuals are entering the workplace, what they’re typically coming from is some sort of educational setting. And if you think about how often you get feedback in an educational setting, it is ongoing and constant, whether that’s in the form of grades, or those daily check-ins with your teachers, whatever that might be, or your daily check-ins with professors. There is this constant sort of built-in for that ongoing feedback. 


So to go from that, to the idea that I’m going to get information once a year, is a huge disconnect and it really makes it difficult. And I actually had a client who was experiencing – When I was consulting with a different organization. A client, they were experiencing about a 35% turnover once we implemented ongoing feedback, and really changed the way they handled their performance conversations and separate it out. David mentioned here some of those critical conversation moments. Over about an 18-month period, they saw that dropped to about 15%. So it was just in that that made such a tremendous difference.


[00:19:18] DR: Yeah, I mean, when we looked at the tonnage of conversations a few years ago, we looked at the tonnage of conversations of each of these. By tonnage, I mean, literally, the number of minutes that you should spend in a perfect world. Feedback is a huge outlier. So feedback is something that should be happening every week pretty much for every person in some form or another. We should be getting constant, whereas a lot of these things are very sporadic and quite rare events. It’s a really important event. So it’s one of those things to really, really get right. 


So what I wanted to focus on today is the three things that seem to matter most particularly in this time. Goal setting, touch a little bit on that and how it’s changing in this more ambiguous world. Feedback, how that’s been changing. What’s been going on? And also check-in. So we’re going to dig in a little bit into each of these and look at particularly like what the science is, but also how these things are actually changing in this time. And let’s start with goal settings. A few things happening with goal setting, one of the really interesting things in the science that’s kind of surprising is some of the literature says you should set annual goals. They should be integrated and organized all the way down your system, and cascading goals, and all of these. It’s really fascinating that there’s not a lot of evidence anywhere that setting normal goals actually improves performance in any way. It’s really quite like start, like setting goals doesn’t do much at all for performance. On the other hand, setting stretch goals does. So goals increase performance when they provide focus, and all these sort of stuff. Really, the simple summary is stretch goals, right? You can’t have 10 stretch goals or five stretch goals. Really, you can have one, maybe two, at the most three. So it’s a really different way of thinking about goal setting. 


And the other thing that’s happening more relevant to today is these goals have to be much shorter term. So we cannot think a year out anymore. I don’t know about you. I managed to think a month out a couple of months ago. It’s come back to a week. We cannot think a year out. We can’t think a quarter out. We need to be setting much more short term goals in terms of particularly the pandemic and the kind of experiences that we’re all having. So that’s a really big change that’s happening about goal setting. 


The other thing that’s happening around goal setting is managers are a lot less on the court with their people, or maybe they’re on the court with some of their people. A lot of the people, they’re not, right? Think about a basketball game. The manager, if they were in the office with most employees in the past, was kind of watching them playing, right? Could give them real time feedback, because they’re on the side of the court watching them playing. Now the manager is like watching it on TV as a recording at the end of the week. They’re getting much less direct feedback. 


So the goal setting has to be a little bit different. And it’s got to be a little bit more anchored on what great performance looks like. So the employee can kind of self-manage to that. So they’ve got to be shorter term. And they should be much more anchored on great performance and much more anchored on outcomes versus output. And that’s an important distinction, outcomes versus output, and really making that shift. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that. 


But there’s a lot of research on this. I won’t go too far into it. But all the research about goals that was important before has now become kind of essential. So when people are overwhelmed, stressed, don’t know what’s happening, can’t remember much at all. Now, these things that were important five years ago are critical. So the goals have to be simple, just a few of them, they have to be inspirational and stretch goal. They have to actually make sense with each other. They have to be measurable. So all these things have actually become even more important with a cliff note on simple. We have to really focus on simple, memorable goals much more than ever. So simple, memorable, short term goals have become really, really important. 


Any questions, Marshall or Christy around goals or anything you guys want to weigh in on there before we talk about feedback, which we’ll spend a bit more time on?


[00:23:07] MB: For all of the managers who manage something like 40 people, have that large span of control, how is this idea of regular feedback feasible in this environment?


[00:23:20] CPH: Yeah, and I think one approach to that is this doesn’t mean every meeting is going to be a sit down meeting where you’re sitting there for 30 minutes and going into a lot of depth and detail. A lot of these conversations can happen in a relatively short amount of time, because it becomes more important about the frequency and the consistency, as opposed to having very long and in depth conversations. So when we think about ongoing feedback, that can sometimes happen literally as you’re walking from one meeting to another and just having those check-in moments. So it’s important that the employees understand this is what we’re talking about. Here’s the goal of this conversation. But again, it doesn’t have to be a series of hour-long sessions. They can be short yet relevant.


[00:24:06] DR: Right. Thanks.


[00:24:08] MB: David, do you mind if I just build on that a little bit? Because I think there’s an important thing that I often find I’m talking to clients about when they’re thinking about trying to address performance management, or feedback, or any of these challenges around motivating employees. And I think it goes back to that process focus versus people focus. And if you’re going to be on the people focus side of things, you need to actually focus on the people that are having the conversations. And you can actually train leaders to have more effective conversations in shorter periods of time that not only give a useful feedback, but also motivate people and engage people. 


And so, fundamentally, this is a behavior change problem. And I think a lot of people try to solve it with checklists and processes, but there is an art, and if you look to neuroscience, the neuroscience tells you how that art works, of having better conversations that achieve all these things. And David sharing some of the key science here. But this is the sort of stuff that every leader now needs to understand when they go into a performance conversation. So seven words or less, three to four objectives. Make sure that things don’t compete with each other. Those are things that managers need to go into their conversations and prepared to do in order to make this process work.




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[00:25:44] DR: Right. Thanks. So let’s talk a little bit about feedback here, because this is a really important study that we did. It was pre-pandemic, but I think actually this has become even more relevant in this time. So what you’ve got here is, firstly, how often people would like feedback? So we got a lot of people would like feedback weekly, or biweekly, about a quarter, would like it monthly. So you can see how that works. 


Now, how often do you have? So very few people have weekly or biweekly, like 20%. Similar have monthly. There’s, again, a really big gap between how much feedback people want and how much they’re actually getting. Then is how often do you have versus how often the manager says you have? So again, there’s this really big discrepancy between what the manager thinks is happening and what’s actually happening. So the cliff note there is there needs to be a lot more feedback happening. But one of the challenges with that, actually, even before the pandemic, and now it’s been even harder, is that the way feedback normally happens is it tends to do nothing or make things worse more often than it makes things better. So it’s a scary thing to give feedback. And our research on this is that the people giving feedback are just as anxious as the people receiving it. And it turns out, there was actually a case study on this. If you force people to give feedback, if you say, “Managers, you must, as part of your job, give feedback every single week,” all sorts of terrible things actually start happening. There was actually a case of this, it was quite some years ago, but our company said, “We’re going to mandate, and people have to tick a box as a manager that they gave everyone feedback every week.” And it was really disastrous in the performance of this company. And they actually failed as a company tied to this. 


So you’ve got to really think about feedback. And we tackled this some years back. But you’ve got this gap of three times fewer feedback conversations compared to managers and a really big gap between what they want and what they get. So how do you close that gap, not mandating as we’ve seen. And training hasn’t done much for it. So if you’ve been following our work for a while, you know we’re very passionate about asking for feedback. We’ve actually published two papers on this. And we came to this insight about asking for feedback, because we couldn’t see any other way to actually make feedback less stressful for the giver and the receiver. And the stress of feedback really inhibits both giving it and working. Like it’s a massive determinant of whether people give it or not and whether they receive it well or not. It’s kind of the number one variable we saw. And nothing was reducing the threat response. Like telling people what they did well, and then giving them tough feedback. And then what they did. Like all those things kind of didn’t really reduce. But what we found is that asking for feedback turns down the stress response for both parties. We actually found about 50% less stress for giver and receiver when feedback was actually asked for. 


So this is rolled out across a number of organizations, initially, Microsoft where we develop this together, and then many, many other firms who said, “This is going to be a really critical part of our feedback strategy.” And I can tell you, in a pandemic where threat is even higher, where baseline threat is even higher, this has become even more important. It’s become much more important that feedback is very, very regular and that it’s asked for by the employee, because everyone’s more anxious overall. So I won’t say much more about the research says that we can, but our hypothesis about feedback is ask for feedback. Stop giving feedback, and stop asking for feedback is really the way to do it. And it reduces threat. You can get it much faster. You can reduce bias.  You can get the specific feedback you need. 


So going back to Christy’s point, particularly the people who are graduates coming out of university, these people can ask for feedback from a couple of different folks every single week and get the same amount they used to and grow as fast as they want. They can put in a proposal report, get the feedback they need straightaway to improve by asking by asking, right? They don’t have to wait for the system or for the manager. So these newer graduates, as well as everyone else, can actually now get this feedback as they need it. 


So we published a lot on this. There was a big piece we wrote in strategy and business that we can put in the chat that’s in public domain. The journal papers we don’t share publicly if they’re not members, but there’s a really big piece on this in strategy and business that we can share. So from a strategy perspective, getting feedback right is the number one conversation to get right. And the number one way to get that right is teach people to ask well. And when you ask well, people give it well, and it’s so much less stressful overall. So that’s become, we think, even more important in this time when things are really ambiguous. 


And I want to say one more thing about this time. These are three principles that were really relevant for us for the last like 20 years ago. Like we’ve been kind of anchoring closer and closer and closer to these principles over the last 20 years. When the pandemic hit, we have this awful realization that these things actually became far more important than they ever were. So you almost look at these and say, “Oh, you built this for the pandemic?” No, this is exactly what has always been important. And now it’s become critical. 


So for all the conversations you have, goal setting, feedback, check-ins, end of cycle, compensation, career, everything, but all the different conversations, one of the first principles that matters most is to make it as least stressful as possible. You want to reduce how anxious people feel. If you don’t do that, then the whole conversation kind of falls apart. Like you don’t end up sharing what you need to share. You end up holding things back. The person doesn’t receive it well. So all of these conversations, the first principle is minimize threat. That’s become critical in this time.


The second principle was kind of always important. And now when you’re not standing next to people every day, it’s become even more important, because generating insights means you’re asking questions so people are thinking for themselves versus telling them what to do. And this skill is really, really important as is shifting from a surveillance mindset to an outcomes mindset, which is a shift that managers are going to have to make in this time. You’re going from a surveillance mindset where you’re sort of telling people what to do, gathering information, telling them exactly what to do, to more of an outcomes mindset where people are self-managing. You’re not there watching their work as much. So you need to ask a lot more questions and help people have their own insights going forward. 


And then the third one, I mean, it becomes so critical, because we’re all having to adapt rapidly. We’re having to change our approach rapidly. We’re having to be super, super flexible all the time. So these three principles that were important have now become kind of urgent. And we’ve been teaching these, we’ve been coming back to these as part of our flex solution, which looks at the core skills managers need to have. And we’ve been saying, “Look, here’s how you do this now around goal setting, and around feedback, and around check-ins, because you got to be that much more delicate and careful and thoughtful about these approaches.” 


Marshall, Christy, anything you want to weigh in there with sort of on those three conversations before we move on?


[00:32:25] MB: Yeah, so a couple things. So first of all, you can change cultures and train people to ask for feedback. So we do have a program. We do have a research that actually teaches that. And we do have data that proves that change can happen. So I’ll just pull out a quick case study from our improve program. In three months after teaching people the habits of asking for feedback and asking for feedback well, 86% of the participants who went through this program ask for feedback at least once per week. So if you can just imagine, the performance hit or benefit that you’re going to get from all of those people asking for feedback and getting useful helpful feedback, you’re going to get what the goal of performance management is, which is better performance, right? So that’d be one thing I would share. 


The second thing I wanted to share as well was there was just a question in there around using the word feedback. Does that cause stress? Yeah. I mean, we all know, once the boss walks in the room and says, “I’d like to give you feedback,” we stop listening. We want to leave the room. That’s what happens. That’s what the neuroscience shows. But fundamentally, the word isn’t so scary. It’s really like what David said, which is if you ask for feedback and you ask for specific feedback on a specific topic, it reduces the threat level in you and you’re ready to listen. And it also reduces the threat level in the person giving the feedback because you’re asking them for some specific feedback on a specific topic. They’re opening up the conversation there. So it’s less about the word and more about the process.


[00:33:47] DR: Yeah, they get the process right. I mean, we’ve definitely helped a number of companies develop different language around it. So we developed a custom solution with a huge consulting company, a completely different language around it that’s going out to hundreds of thousands of people. We developed a custom solution at Microsoft called Perspectives, which we published about. Maybe one of my team can find some writing about that from Microsoft. So folks at Microsoft don’t ask for feedback or give feedback. They ask for perspectives and share their perspective. 


And so yes, there’s different language out there. We’ve seen a number of different words you can use that can be helpful, but the most important thing is teaching people to ask well. And ultimately, it is feed forward that we end up teaching. We just don’t have to call it that. Really what you want to do is ask for both sides the positive and what to do differently, but in the future. So in other words, if I was asking for feedback on this presentation, I’d say, “Tell me something I did well that you think I should keep doing or maybe do even more of. And then tell me one thing maybe I should do differently if I’m doing it again.” 


Now when I asked like that with both a positive to build on and the thing differently for the future, I’m much more comfortable receiving it and you’re much more comfortable giving it. So it ends up being feed forward. But all of that comes down to the principle of minimizing threat and increasing the chance of insight. That’s the science that we draw from. And so we’re definitely building these different literally scripts for how to do this better so that whether it’s a check-in, or feedback, or goal setting, so that you’re minimizing threat, generating insight and activating a growth mindset. 


So a couple other things, we actually wrote a paper on this call Turn the 360 Around. And the cliff note of that – We should do an update on that, actually, at some point. But the cliff note on that is that 360 create more threat than value, unless you do enormous work that most companies are not willing to do to prepare people, educate people, get people like choosing the questions and really leaning into it. And unless you do like a lot of work, they tend to actually create more drama and noise than then they create value. And they come from an incorrect assumption that if people knew their gaps, they would change. If people know their gaps, they obsess about who said them more so than changing. So 360 have a mixed bag. 


Crowdsourcing feedback, that’s a little different, because you get feedback, like a little bit of feedback from a lot of people regularly, that’s different to like a once a year 360 that is a small number of people giving you a deep amount of feedback, and you obsess. But a little bit of regular nudges from a lot of people can be quite powerful, can be really, really helpful I think. It’s a really different thing. So we think we’re going to move to a world of more crowdsourced feedback, more crowdsourced kind of nudges and insights. And I think that’s going to be interesting. Christy, you want to weigh in there on some of these issues?


[00:36:25] CPH: Absolutely. And something you said I think it’s critical when you were talking about 360s, that people do tend to obsess over who said this, the idea of anonymous feedback. And I think at that point, people do wonder more about who it came from, as opposed to being able to focus on what was said. So I completely agree with you there, David. 


And one other thing that I find really interesting, asking for feedback requires a certain amount of emotional maturity. And I agree with that. And sometimes I think, especially if we have a younger workforce or someone who may not have achieved that same level of maturity, there are some great ways to kind of nudge the question until it becomes a habit of theirs. And one example, and I have to give credit to Neuroleadership, this is something that I’ve experienced working here. It’s been wonderful for someone to come to me and say, “What type of feedback would be helpful?” So even if I don’t immediately remember to ask for it, just asking that can be a way to still make that conversation a little easier. It reminds me to ask for it and still takes that thread away. So there’s some ways that you can encourage the question and encourage people to ask for it. If they haven’t quite gotten there on their own, that’s still going to get them some great information while minimizing that threat and create that culture of constant feedback.


[00:37:47] DR: That’s great. Thanks, Christy. And what about people who’ve been through trauma? Like let’s say everyone on the planet? How do you deal with those folks? And obviously, some people have been through a lot more trauma than others. Some have a really, really difficult trauma. I don’t mean to make a joke of that. But we’ve all had some trauma to some degree this year, but some a lot. And certainly, people who’ve got a high baseline of threat, which is what happens from trauma, you do want to be a lot more thoughtful about your approach to all of these things, to goal setting, to feedback, to check-in, so all of it. You want to be a lot more sensitive, a lot more asking questions and generating insights, a lot less telling, and a lot more supportive overall. 


And I didn’t talk a lot about check-ins, but one of our favorite set of questions, this is more of a like a weekly stand up than a formal check-in. But I think it’s important to differentiate. But there’s this sort of weekly check-in with a team that sometimes people think this, and it’s how have you been winning? And what do you need help with? Three really interesting questions. And certainly, in the heat of the pandemic, we were doing that pretty much every week with our team. Now people are doing better. It’s more just kind of, “Alright, how have you been winning? What do you need help with?” But it’s a really, really powerful set of questions, particularly if people are really sensitive and people are struggling. How are you? And actually make sure people answer that? How have you been winning? And what do you need help with? So those are really good questions for kind of the more week-to-week check in particularly with sensitive people who’ve been through a lot. For the more like monthly check-in against goals, it’s really, really important that you’re focusing on progress, not just results. So that’s a key difference that you’re really checking in on how people are doing on their progress. So you’re not just talking about outcomes, but you’re evaluating progress. 


Christy, Marshall, anything you want to dig into there before we sort of summarize?


[00:39:29] CPH: How do you get feedback when you recognize it needs to be given but that individual may not have asked for it? And there are a couple of thoughts there. And I would love to hear, Marshall and David, your approach, but it is very possible just to go to them and ask for permission. Basically say, “Can I share some feedback with you?” So they still have the opportunity to say, “I may not be quite ready for it.” But I don’t think that happens typically. Usually if you ask for permission, that again can lower that threat because they don’t feel like you’re just coming at them almost with this defensive approach. You’re saying, “Is it okay if I share some insights with you? Would you mind if I share something that I’ve observed?” And that can open that door so you can share the feedback even if they haven’t gotten to the point of asking for it yet. And Marshall, David, any other thoughts there?


[00:40:19] DR: I just think this whole issue of moving from like a surveillance mindset to an outcomes mindset, we sort of brushed over that. The shift from a surveillance mindset to an outcomes mindset is important, because if you have a surveillance mindset where you don’t trust people and you need to know everything they’re doing, your check-ins are going to be terrible. Your feedback is going to be terrible. Your goal setting is going to be kind of terrible, right? 


So there is this mindset shift that managers who are not seeing their employees so much now actually need to make. It’s different to having a growth mindset, which is like stretching and growing people, and giving them a chance to fail, and letting people experiment. That’s important. It’s slightly different. It’s this shift to an outcomes mindset versus surveillance. And it actually means that you’re not going to get all the information about everything people did. You’re actually not going to ask them how many hours they worked necessarily. You’re not going to ask them where they were. You’re not going to like watch the keystrokes through software, as some people are starting to do if folks are out of the office. I think that’s a dangerous path, because people who feel untrusted like that actually do reduce performance. There’s good evidence that really does reduce performance. 


There was an opposite study I think that was done a few years ago where they actually curtained off a team in a factory and made it that no one could see them. And their performance actually improved considerably. Like the less people feel like they’re watched, that actually more creative they are, the more they innovate and tend to perform better. So I think all of these things rest on this shift to a more of an outcomes mindset, versus everything you have to get done. It’s like what are your goals? What are you supposed to achieve? Versus I want you to report on everything you did. Outcomes, not activity, is going to be really important in this time when you don’t see people when they’re really stressed, when there’s so much ambiguity. I think that’s kind of underpinning this at the moment. We talk about that a lot in the flex solution. Marshall, anything else you want to add in there?


[00:42:06] MB: Yeah, just to recap. There’re a few questions around what is NLI’s point of view? Or if you’re listening to this podcast, you want to go back to your organization, start to make a change. Where should you start? There’s a continuum, but I will say that at NLI, we do believe in people focus performance management. So we’re not as much on the process side. And we do believe that if you want to get people-focused on performance right, you need to focus on the brain. What’s actually happening in people’s brains? That’s the gateway to getting their behavior to change. And so, yes, we do believe that a culture of feedback is what our research shows will lead you to the best performance. If you get into a culture where people are asking for feedback regularly, you will get all sorts of benefits to performance. That being said, not every organization is ready to go there. And you still can teach managers and employees skills that allow them to have more effective conversations, again, based on what the neuroscience says. So maybe you’re not ready for cultural feedback. But you certainly can make people have better conversations so they know what’s happening in each other’s brains when they’re having these difficult conversations.


[00:43:08] DR: Yeah. It’s interesting. When you know what’s happening in the brain, when you teach 1000 managers what’s going on in the brain in these conversations, they all become a little bit like Neo in the Matrix, where they can see someone about to get upset. They can imagine themselves saying, “Why did you do that?” They can see that that’s going to create a threat response, a status threat. And they choose a different strategy, right? They literally can see what’s going on in people’s brains real time. So it’s a really interesting way to approach performance conversations is teaching people what’s happening in the brain moment to moment. So they actually get smarter about self-managing, right? Versus a whole model to follow. So we don’t give you like a model for feedback, and then a model for goal setting, and a model for this, and a model for that. What we want to do is we want to make managers smarter about humans in real time, because they have language for what’s going on. And it really is a lot like Neo in the Matrix where you suddenly see all this data. You’re suddenly seeing what could happen in these conversations. So it doesn’t make people perfect, but it does seem to make them a lot better. It does seem to help a lot. 


And the cliff note I want to come back to is, as you’re thinking about performance in this very ambiguous world, do you focus on technology? Do you focus on your strategy? Do you focus on pay for performance? Or do you focus on the quality of conversations? Because I’m pretty sure you can’t focus on all four. And we’re pretty sure that making managers smarter about having better conversations in real time is a really great place to focus. And we’ve seen dozens and dozens of studies showing that people really can change quite quickly at scale in these things. So that’s kind of the summary. Change annual goals to fewer, agile, transparent goals. Enable ongoing asker-driven feedback. Much more frequent check-ins that are about growth. If you’re doing end of year, then make sure those are really synthesized, that they’re focused on learning and growth, not just on outcomes. Separate out performance and comps. And make sure you focus on fairness. You’re not necessarily trying to motivate. You’re just trying to reduce unfairness. And conversations about careers should obviously be happening quite regularly. And we actually have a solution, it’s a little bit unloved, and we never talk about it. We actually have a solution for assessing performance called Differentiate, which takes out the bias and makes people better at performance conversations at the end of year and comp. And we also have one called Develop, which is around having better career conversations. So there’s actually a whole pathway of habit activation strategies starting with connect, improve, develop and differentiate. That covers all the critical habits for these better conversations. But Connect has gone out to – I mean, really, millions of people have been influenced by that since we launched that. So that’s the summary.


In this crazy time, people are much more anxious than normal. That’s not going away anytime soon. If you can teach managers to have better conversations, that’s probably the best place to invest, time, energy and attention. And it seems possible to make pretty big difference relatively quickly. And by the way, doing learning in a virtual environment is actually better than having to put people in workshops. We transitioned to doing learning in a virtual environment before the pandemic because we got better results. So don’t think that because everyone’s at home, or mixed up, or some at the office, some at home, that you can’t do learning. You can actually do learning better because it’s virtual. We bet our whole company on it, and it’s proven correct so far. 


So Christy, Marshall, closing comments before we wrap up? We’ll close off in a minute.


[00:46:21] CPH: Yes, I think for me, the key with all of this is being consistent. Having those check-in moments with your team, and getting the organization just in the idea that feedback is not a bad thing. And unfortunately, for a lot of people, it has this negative connotation, and it really shouldn’t be. So when we could move past that and really get folks to the point of saying, “I just want to know more so I can do better and reach not only my goals, but the organization goals,” we’ll get to a much better place. So hopefully, we can no longer have that moment for when the boss comes in and says, “I want to give you feedback,” we all freeze kind of like a deer in headlights and get to the point of understanding. That’s part of the process and should it be the goal of it. 


[00:47:03] DR: Right. Thanks, Christy. Marshall?


[00:47:05] MB: The only thing I would add is we don’t need a fancy training program or any neuroscience to go out and start one of the most important habits, which is asking for feedback regularly and often. So it’s something that I’ve been committed to over the past year and something that everyone who’s been here can start to demonstrate in their organizations starting today. So good luck out there.




[00:47:25] SO: Your Brain at Work is produced by the Neuroleadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Ted Bower, and me, Shadé Olasimbo. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky. And logo design is by Catch Wear. We’ll see you here again in a few weeks.



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