S 3 E11

December 18th, 2020

EPISODE 11: What Performance Trends in 2020 Tell Us About 2021

We close Season 3 of Your Brain at Work with our two performance gurus, Barbara Steel, the head of our performance practice, and Rob Ollander-Krane, a Senior Client Advisor at NLI who will review some of the biggest trends of 2020. From the underrated—but absolutely vital— check-in conversation, to the role bias plays in performance management, and performance management’s impact on broader talent strategy, we look back on the trends and lessons of 2020, and look ahead to what organizations should prioritize in 2021.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:05] GB: It’s been a tough year. There’s no hiding that fact or kidding ourselves. Amidst the disruption, some of our deeply held beliefs about performance management were called into question and some completely collapsed, but buried in the rubble are hidden treasures, the seeds of insight. So let’s talk about the future, specifically the future of performance management. Let’s explore how we can have better, more empathetic conversations. How we can mitigate bias in reviews and compensation decisions and how we can all adopt a mindset that enables us to thrive in a new year. Let’s talk about how we can plant those seeds of insight and harvest their fruits for many years to come. 


I’m Gabriel Berezin, 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. This week our panel consists of Barbara Steele, the head of our performance practice, and Rob Ollander-Krane, a senior client strategist here at NLI. Together they investigate the performance trends of 2020 and reveal how the lessons learned will guide performance in 2021 and beyond. Enjoy.




[00:03:18] BS: So, again, welcome everyone. And we have a really rich discussion that we have planned for you today. For those of you who are joining us and you’re not as familiar with NLI, which is hard for us to imagine, but still we do want to take a moment and just talk a bit about who we are and the work that we do. So we are a research consultancy. We’ve been in business for more than 20 years. We’re a global consultancy. And you can see in our header that our whole mission and purpose is really to go about helping organizations become more human through science. Like that’s our charter. That’s our mission and that’s our passion.


And we conduct a lot of research and publish a lot in terms of partnering with organizations when it comes to their talent needs. So this year, as an example, diversity and inclusion has been such a huge focus and emphasis for us. So we’ve done a ton in that space, but other disciplines range from performance management, which of course we’re talking about today, leadership, and again, learning other aspects of talent. 


And so we definitely are working with our clients to inform either their strategy, whether it is to deploy learning on a massive scale throughout their organizations and everything in between. So, again, it’s work that we enjoy and have a strong brand in the market as being one of the thought leaders and talent based on science. 


And so with respect to today’s conversation, it is very much focused on performance. And what Rob and I are prepared to do is really take this – We’ll start the conversation today taking a walk down memory lane if you will. So reflecting on 2020 and what’s been happening. We saw in 2020 just a number of tragedies take place. We’ve had the worst pandemic the world has seen in more than a century. Here in North America, we had the California wildfires. There was a super active hurricane season coast to coast. There was social justice and unrest concerns. So a lot of challenges and tragedies. And yet despite all of that challenge, there are so many bright spots and wonderful things to see how the healthcare profession and so many other kind of frontline workers were remarkable with their courage and their sacrifice. And through all of this, the business community definitely was not immune, hugely impacted by these events of the year. And so that’s what Rob and I will be taking a look at together, is kind of like you know looking at each quarter roughly. What happened? What did it mean uh in terms of business and what were the implications when it comes to performance management? So we invite you today. We want you to engage with us. So, Rob, I’ll hand it over to you, because I know that you’ll talk us through this high-level timeline that we’re seeing now.


[00:06:26] ROK: Yeah, thanks, Barbara. I’m going to second what Barbara said and say, “Oh my God! What a year this has been.” I mean, who knew? Think back to January. Who knew that what was going to happen was going to be so catastrophic, right? When we were setting our annual goals back in January, I’m sure none of those goals are still relevant. Certainly, they’re not the goals that I have now. Back in January, we had no sight to this pandemic. It was just maybe an article or two. We heard rumblings. And then of course we got to March and the news of this pandemic hit. And we went into lockdown, and coincidentally that weekend, the weekend of march 14th was the weekend that my family was moving from Northern California to Southern California. And it made the whole move kind of surrealistic. After living in San Francisco for 34 years, I didn’t get to say goodbye to a soul. When I arrived in Palm Desert, where we moved, I didn’t get to say hello to anyone. It was just bizarre. 


So personally, I’m never going to forget that weekend back in March when this whole thing started. But for businesses, offices were closed, people started working remotely. I worked for GAP at the time, and we had to close all of our stores in china, then all of our stores in the U.S. and in Europe. We furloughed 85 000 people. I mean, this was a monumental moment from a business perspective. And those remaining at work had to figure out how to do it in a way that was safe. How could we reopen businesses and not infect people and not infect employees? 


And then if a pandemic wasn’t enough in 2020, May brought us the George Floyd tragedy and months of protests and unfortunately some violence that once again rattled society and rattled business. If I think about GAP again, we had to close stores. Again, we just started to open as safely as we could and we had to shut them down again. But wait, it’s not over. We get to September and Covid spikes again. And now here we are in December and it’s spiking in an even bigger way, right? We’ve surpassed, unfortunately, 300,000 deaths. I mean, what a year. Who could have predicted anything like this?


And then, of course, layer that on top of a U.S. election. That’s been the most contentious and bizarre election cycle that I’ve ever experienced in my life. So it’s really been a year. And these events have impacted businesses and therefore they’ve impacted employee performance. So with that in mind, let’s take a slightly deeper dive into a couple of the ways that NLI helped our clients sort of navigate through this chaos.


So on the next slide we’ll talk about what was happening sort of in March and April. So remember, that was when COVID-19 becomes this global pandemic. And the big organizational shift was that for the most part we had to shut down offices and move our work to home and become virtual. And at that time, NLI wrote an article called Five Ways Science Shows Us How to Work Better Virtually, because the cat jumping on our shoulders, trying to conduct business. Not in an office, not together. And our point of view is that you have to make that moment connected, right? Even though we’re not in the same room, even though we’re physically distanced, you still have to have some kind of social connection and make those conversations more social. 


And I’ll throw in the word as you can see on the screen, empathy, right? We used to start at the very beginning of this pandemic when I was working for GAP. We would come together and these conversations would start with, “Okay, are you green? Are you yellow? Or are you red today?” And if someone said they were red, meaning they were really struggling with something going on either work-wise or personally, we would like stop and say, “Okay, how can we help you? How can we support you?”

So we were really amping up the social and empathetic part of the conversation. 


I have this bone to pick with people who come on virtual work calls and don’t turn their video on, right? We’re all feeling this lack of connectedness. In NLI terms, this relatedness threat, because we’re not physically together. And to come onto a video call and not turn your video on so I can see you doesn’t help me have a relatedness reward. So NLI’s point of view here is turn your video on. I want to see you. I love seeing Barbara right now. I feel like we’re in the same room together. 


And then finally pay attention to the visual cues that you’re seeing. One of the interesting things about working in this virtual environment is you can see everybody if they have their video on. So you can watch people’s expressions. You don’t have to look around the room to see it. You just look at your screen and you can see everybody’s reaction to something. You can ask a question and you can see people raising their hands. So don’t miss the visual cues that are going on when you’re in these virtual sessions. 


The last thing I’ll mention here is that with all this chaos going on, I think companies are not paying any attention to learning. And our point of view is keep investing in training. It’s a way to tuck employees in. It’s a way to make them realize that there’s still growth and development that can happen in a really tough year. Employees are intrinsically motivated by learning. So keep doing that. So that’s what was happening way back in March and April. Barbara, what would you add on to that? Or take us to the next quarter.


[00:11:39] BS: Yeah. Well, I want to check in with our audience today because we’re capturing some thoughts. So first of all, those of you in the Northeast that are being battered with the storm, we’re thinking of you. But also in asking you to share some of your reflections, a few of you have mentioned how video fatigue is real though. Rob, so keep that in mind, with your bone to pick. We are so zoomed out. And then we also have Sarah, who mentioned how just the nature of work, and we’re finally acknowledging that some things can be done remotely. And Sarah, we so appreciate you calling that out, because it’s so true. Like the things that we were just – Inside of our organizations that we were holding on to and we were so – What’s the word? Just determined that it had to be done a certain way and it had to be done in an office or a physical location. And then here’s like a brighter side. Some things that have actually shifted in a positive way due to COVID and the way that we’ve had to adapt. So I just wanted to flag that, Rob, some of the things that people are mentioning.


[00:12:46] ROK: Yeah. Vicky just said asking people how they really are and meaning it is so important.


[00:12:52] BS: And I love that, Vicky, because we all know. I mean, this is I know a thing in North America. Those of you um in other parts of the world, this may not be true for you. But we have this thing I feel like, especially U.S. We ask people how they’re doing, but we don’t really wait for the response. For us that’s like hello, right? How are you doing is like hello. 


But what the pandemic has shown us based on Vicky’s point is that, really, now when we ask that question, we actually mean it. We really do want to check in. Whether it’s, Rob, like you mentioned, the green, yellow or red. And then we’re looking behind that because we genuinely want to know that. So everybody keep sharing with us kind of your reflections with us. Love it. 


And so I’ll continue on, Rob, to move us to May through August, because when we now move into this part of the year, this is where, as you mentioned in terms of the timeline, where we really start to see the social unrest and the protesting take center stage. And it was building, right? So , really, it began with – Well, this goes back many years, but in 2020, Ahmaud Aubrey. And so his death happened in February. Followed by march there’s a tragedy of Breonna Taylor. So it was already brewing. And so by the time we get to May with George Floyd, like that’s just when really the proverbial ground just shook from underneath us. And so you have what we saw inside of organizations is really our ability to figure out how do we have these conversations? So how do leaders go about engaging in discussions about what was coming up for people? The social unrest that we’re all watching before our eyes, again, largely North America focused here. And also it elevated just concerns about bias especially when it comes to talent decisions. 


So it’s not to imply that we weren’t talking about bias before, of course, because we were. But just this chain of events really just elevated the discussion around bias and around these topics. And so from an NLI perspective, as I mentioned at the start of our call, really, like the space of diversity, equity and inclusion, we have been doing research and publishing a lot for many years. And certainly 2020 was no exception. 


And so what we really were messaging this year, whether it was to the organizations that we’ve partnered with, or whether it’s like an environment like this when we get to do webinars, is to really help leaders lean into the habits that will help them address unconscious bias. And so you can see like one piece that we had published earlier this year around reducing bias in performance management. And so there’s a couple things that you see us reference here. We were messaging around, “Listen, now that we’ve made this shift from –” It used to be a time things that happened in broader society. We really didn’t bring that into the workplace. Well, we do. Now we do. That is no longer off-limits.


And so because we’re talking about sensitive conversations that are ones that we didn’t – It’s newer for us to do this. It’s going to feel awkward and it’s going to feel clumsy. And so our message was, “And that’s okay,” right? Because the more that we have these kinds of conversations, the more we get comfortable with the awkwardness, right? It’s not that the awkwardness necessarily goes away. It’s just our ability to recognize it’s important to have the discussions. 


And what we also have messaged a lot around for those of you who’ve been around our work is leveraging our science behind the seeds model. So seeds is one of the key frameworks that really is about just categorizing the various. It’s more than 150 types of biases, but it’s a framework that allows leaders to very efficiently recognize bias when it’s there and look at what are the various mitigation strategies that can be employed to actually reduce that bias. So that’s been our message for a really long time, right? It’s not new for NLI, but it feels like especially this year we really got to beat the drum and talk a lot about this topic of bias mitigation and the importance of it. 


Rob, so hand off to you so that you can talk to us about the latter part of the year.


[00:17:34] ROK: Yeah. So we get to September to December, and this interesting thing happens. There’s this pandemic next wave that happens and companies start realizing that the pandemic isn’t going away. I think of some of our leaders in the U.S. who made comments early on that this won’t last very long. And I know myself, even when that lockdown happened on March 14th, I thought, “Well, this will happen for a couple weeks and would it all passed and things will get back to normal.” And here we are into September, into October and there’s no sign of this ending. In fact, if anything, it’s ramping up and unfortunately more people are being diagnosed as positive with COVID and more people are dying. Yes, there’s some hope that there’s a vaccine coming. But, still, organizations need to accept that this is our new reality at least for the short term, if not maybe even for the long term, and make adjustments to their performance management practices to accommodate for that.


So we wrote two articles that actually spoke to these. First was about what to do with the ongoing conversations that managers and employees have all the time and how to tweak them to make them reflect the sort of new reality that we’re in. And the first thing is that the check-in conversation should be laden with empathy. We talked about this already that it’s starting by really checking in with the employee. And there were lovely comments in the chat about walking the talk and really truly asking how people are and really caring about employees. 


And so I think that check-in has to include that feedback has to become faster thing. Like every company struggles with getting the feedback equation and ensuring that employees are getting the feedback they need in order to perform well. But in this world where everything is changing all the time, where one day stores are open and other day stores are closed, where we’re having to flex and jive all the time because of what’s going on in the world. Employees need more feedback. They need to know how they’re doing against what you expect more often. So you can get quicker course correction, because it’s pivotal when the world is blowing up the way it is. 


And then finally – And this one’s really interesting for me. I think back to when I was at GAP and 85,000 employees were furloughed, what does that put in the mind of the employee about their future with the company? About their career, right? So I think many leaders are probably saying, “We don’t have time for career conversations. The house is on fire. We have to put out all the flames.” And that ongoing conversation about career is still really vital and important to help give whatever certainty you can to an employee about their future in the company and where their job or their role might go. So that’s sort of ongoing conversations. 


But then there’s some real practical things you can do right now in this time of crisis, and that’s to make goals shorter term and review them frequently. Because, again, the world is changing all the time. To create a real-time feedback culture. So we already said that, in general, feedback conversations should happen more often. It’s the same thing in crisis. Give feedback all the time to help employees understand how they’re doing. And then maybe even a change in the way in which you are rewarding your employees at the end of the year. Most reward programs look at the individual and their own performance and reward that performance. But this was a year where the world was so different. It took teams of people to solve issues that came up because we became remote or because businesses had to shut down. And the way we went to market or the way we helped the customer was so different. So this might be a year to reward the team rather than the individual. And especially rewarding places where innovation happened as a result of necessity. We had to do things differently. We had to be innovative because we couldn’t go into the office. We couldn’t operate the way we did before. So those are a few things to do specifically this year in a time of crisis. And you can see the two articles there that you can reference that go into a little bit more detail about what I’ve just described.


[00:21:56] BS: Beautiful, Rob. 




[00:21:58] DR: Hi there, David Rock here. CEO and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute. On behalf of our team at NLI, I’d like to thank you for listening and for staying up-to-date with all the latest neuroscience and industry research that helps us make organizations more human. We know you have a lot going on and we appreciate you following the science and following us. I wanted to make one simple request. If you’re enjoying Your Brain at Work, please pass on this podcast to a colleague or a friend. Help us share these insights and spread the word in our mission to build a better normal for everyone.




[00:22:34] BS: So one was – I forget who said it, but the person had referenced how important it is for this year to really acknowledge just how much grief and loss there has been. And Rob, during the timeline, you talked about where we are in terms of just loss of life due to COVID when you were walking us through the timeline, which just even when you said the number is so painful to hear. So in some way, I think every single person, whether it’s grieving the loss of a loved one or someone dear to them or lost in some of the other ways that we’ve seen as a result of just the pandemic has been really, really tough for us all.


[00:23:16] ROK: Yeah. I love Nancy’s comment. She says I think we all need to be CEOs, but she describes that as chief empathy officers. 


[00:23:22] BS: Empathy officers.  I love that. Absolutely. And we shouldn’t change that. When we get on the other side of this pandemic, that should be something that has staying power like indefinitely. And then there’s also comments about someone else had mentioned just the importance for organizations. It’s one thing to really espouse the values and what’s important, but it’s another thing to really walk that talk. Rob, so you kind of kind of lightly touched on that, but huge point there. Yeah.


[00:23:55] ROK: Yeah. And I’ll add just one more Jessica wrote. It’s amazing how productive we all can be when we only focus on what is most important and get frequent feedback. Hello. As HR practitioners, we’ve been saying that forever and a day. But it’s interesting that when a crisis like this happens, all of a sudden there’re all these opportunities to perform better, to be more efficient. As Jessica says, to focus on what’s most important. It’s a necessity here. We just can’t lose that when this whole pandemic is over. 


[00:24:28] BS: So true. And for any of you who’ve joined us today, if you had a chance to participate in a course that we do that we made available at the start of the pandemic called Focus. It was designed to help organizations with their workforces around threat and be able to navigate crisis times. To not just survive, but to thrive. And that’s one of the key messages. That’s part of that program. The science behind uh going from this idea that you can be exhaustive, when literally under threat, our brains actually narrow, right? So in terms of what we’re able to kind of hold from a cognition standpoint. So that point about just being really, really focused is key to our ability to thrive. So love that we’re talking about that. 


Yeah. So Rob, I’ll move us now to what’s coming up in 2021. But what we want to do now that we we’ve had this chance to really take some time to reflect on 2021. Just again, from a broader perspective. Obviously what was unfolding? What has taken place to what is that meant for us from a business and specifically talent perspective? And so now what we want to do is think about the future and moving ahead. So what do we really need to be focused on, speaking of focus, and what should be top of mind when it comes to the work that we all do and enjoy? 


So the first thing to call out is when we’re talking about performance, we certainly – Those of us who really specialize in or if this is one of our specialization areas, there’s this tendency to really look in a very kind of narrow way at performance. And what we’re suggesting is definitely going as we look ahead to the future, moving into 2021 and definitely beyond, that we have to get beyond talking about really integration in terms of talent and making it happen. And so here, you see this reference that we make about being more holistic. 


And so we see this in the work that we do with our clients. We’ve done a ton of work in helping clients, for instance, transform their whole performance management approach or help them solve for different challenges that they’re facing when it comes to performance. And so it’s like on the one hand we do that, but we’re not necessarily looking at – So what are the implications for the other aspects of talent, with one exception, to be fair. 


Usually, for example, if an organization is contemplating moving away from a pure rating structure or changing how they go about evaluation, then the proverbial question is, “Then how do you pay people?” But apart from rewards, that’s kind of it. And so what we’re saying now is where we really need to commit and look at performance management more holistically to zoom out, look at the entire system. And so our point of view is whether that is in how you bring in the talent, to how you’re managing the performance and rewarding the contributions of folks, to how you are growing and developing people and how you’re leveraging the workforce for future business needs, organizational needs to meet strategic objectives. 


So that’s what we’re kind of saying. Number one, we’ve got to do that better. And one of the offerings that we have to help organizations with this work is something that we call a coherence analysis. And it’s basically, a coherence we define as just the structural integrity of ideas. So how things are actually fitting together? And we use this framework or use a coherence analysis to help organizations look across all of their talent domains to look at that structural integrity in the three areas that you see represented here. So in terms of the science behind capacity, what limits us from a motivation perspective? What drives us? And then from a biased perspective, what is blinding us? So those are the three areas that we focus on in terms of the framework of coherence.


And essentially when we do this work, we can tell organizations where decoherence actually exists. And we’re anchoring on various science models like growth mindset and scarf and our fact model and seeds. And we produce for organizations a really robust report with not only areas that are de-coherent, but also what are the recommendations to actually ensure that they have the ability to put in place an integrated approach to talent management. And so, Rob, I think we have an example that you’ll walk us through to illustrate what this looks like.


[00:29:37] ROK: Yeah. On the next slide, I’m going make the assumption that most of the 200 plus people on the call are in HR, but there are probably some people who aren’t. So this is just one example of how one particular part of the talent infrastructure touches all parts of the talent infrastructure. So this is about leadership principles. To define leadership principles, those are usually the behaviors that you expect all the people in your organization to exhibit. And in the lower levels of the organization, it might look like one thing. And as you make your way up into the top part of the organization, it might look like a slightly different thing. 


If you’re just looking at this from the lens of performance management, this is probably some of the criteria that you will use to evaluate performance. It’s probably the how that you use when you’re doing assessments at the end of the year during the year-end process, right? But it touches so many other things. If you look at the slide, it touches talent acquisition in the form of behavioral interviews. These are the behaviors you want to interview potential candidates with to decide if they’re the right people to come in to fit into your organization, because you’re looking for people who have some level of skill in those leadership principles. 


It’s also what you’re going to build your learning suite. So you look at those behaviors that you’re expecting and you start to build learning modules that help new employees or existing employees get better at those behaviors. And then finally it connects to workforce planning. When you’re looking at the skills you’re going to need in the future, or when you’re trying to figure out how to get a person from the job they’re in to the next job, you need to know what the behavioral expectations of all of those are. Now if each of these areas created their own set of leadership principles, if talent acquisition had one set and performance management had a different one, and learning and development built learning. On yet a third one and workforce planning didn’t consider the same ones. You don’t have a holistic integrated system. You need to look at them and make them all the same. So every part of your organizational process is driving to the same set of outcomes.


So let’s move on to the second recommendation prediction. What we think might be the right way to attack 2021, and that’s doubling down on bias mitigation. Mitigating bias in talent decisions in our workplaces has always been important, right? But this year, this year in particular, and in the U.S., we have such a focus on equity and inequity that if we’re not looking at bias in our workplace in all the talent decisions we’re making, we’re missing the boat, right? This is the time to do it if you haven’t already done it in 2020. 


And there are three places that we see bias really rearing its ugly head in the performance management process. The first is in managers evaluations of their employees, whether that’s at year end or any time during the year. It’s in the calibration discussions that happen at year end where like managers are coming together to decide how to allocate reward based on performance. And it’s in the actual review conversation that a manager has with their employees.


So let’s take a look at these three in just a little bit more detail. Manager evaluations don’t get better if you work harder. So the conventional wisdom is still a manager. Just try harder. You’ll do a better evaluation. Not true. Trying harder does not improve. Unless you teach managers new habits about how to conduct evaluations with less bias, it doesn’t change, right? The brain is going to do the same thing it always is. It’s going to go down that same path. You have to teach a new habit. And a couple of them that we recommend at NLI is, first, to gather the right data and to gather it from multiple sources and to do it frequently. 


Traditional performance management basically says wait till the end of the year. Grab a little bit of data and write your evaluation. And what science tells us is the better way to do it is to be gathering that information all year long for multiple people who are aware of the employee’s performance and do that exercise more frequently, right? That’s the first step. And the second is to actually use that data, to mine that data, to look at that data, to look for similarities that the manager has with each employee instead of differences, because we know that when you find similarity with an employee, that similarity bias, the preference to reward or to agree with or to like people who are like you is higher than those who are not. So look for the similarity. Read through the data. It will make a more informed evaluation. So that’s just a few steps to mitigate some of the bias in the manager evaluation. 


This is about the calibration conversation. So this is when managers like managers come together to talk about the individual managers assessment of performance. And the first time I saw these statistics I just could not believe it, that favoritism is evident. Now we could probably guess that there’s a little bit of favoritism in organizations. We’ve probably seen that in places. But look at these statistics 92% of senior business executives saw favoritism impacting employee promotions. We’re not saying 10%. We’re not saying even 50%. We’re saying 92% have seen that happen. 


But look at the statistic on the right. That’s the one that really blows me away. Of those 92% who say it’s evident in their organizations, 25% admit that they have practiced favoritism, right? So kudos for them for being honest about this. I’m guessing the number is actually probably higher than people who are honest enough to tell us that. But favoritism exists in the calibration process. It’s going to impact how those leaders make decisions in the room. 


So a few things to help mitigate that. First, make sure everybody’s using the same criteria to do that evaluation, right? Don’t have one person in the room evaluating on one set of criteria and a second person evaluating on a different set of criteria. It should be the same for every manager, for every employee. Look for those similarities. Pull people into your in-group. Create that relatedness reward when you’re looking at all that data. Don’t only value the people who are like you. Figure out a way to find similarity with everyone to help level that playing field. And then don’t walk away from all that evidence. Once you do all that work, make sure you don’t go back to your initial hunch. Use that evidence to inform your decision and collectively mitigate some of the bias that’s in these calibration discussions.


So let me just do the last one. In the review conversation, bias can actually show up as well. And simply here, take all that data that you have now collected that you now know about the similarities that you found in the employee and use that as the content for the conversation. Again, don’t go back to your hunch. Share all that rich data with the employees so they hear their performance to the manager’s eyes in a really balanced and complete way. And in addition, especially this year when the potential to feel like the evaluation process is unfair because everybody’s experience at home is different, be transparent about how the evaluation criteria was set and how it was used to inform this particular evaluation. Be transparent, be open about it to provide a fairness reward to the employee. So those are three ways in which we can help mitigate some bias. We think those are important things to focus on not only in 2021, but every year.


[00:37:18] BS: The next topic that we think will continue to be hugely important in 2021 is the check-in conversation. So what we saw, and we’ve collected a lot in in terms of poll survey data this year, especially like right at the onset of the pandemic. There were so many questions raised about performance, really, about a lot of things obviously. But in the performance management domain, it was do we continue the process as it is? Should we be setting goals? Do we give people feedback now? There are so many things. How are we going to reward people when, fundamentally, for a lot of folks their jobs have changed? So, so many questions, right? 


And the one conversation type that really just rose in significance, and not that it wasn’t significant before, by the way, but we seem to really give a lot more appreciation in terms of its importance was the check-in conversation. So from NLI’s point of view, we also show on this visual all of the conversations that are key ones when we’re talking about discussions that should be taking place throughout the year when it comes to continuous performance management. And when it came to 2020, we saw how this was the type of conversation where leaders and their direct reports were able to connect. And sometimes the check-in was what we talked about earlier. It was about how were folks doing and it was about empathy for what one another was experiencing. 


And so we’re saying that needs to continue into 2021. So the importance of the check-ins. Making sure those types of conversations are happening with a degree of regularity. More is better. The data that we collect, have collected from employees about the role of a check-in. They have consistently said we want to be talking more with our leaders, not less. So that’s what we say and we identify these new check-in behaviors, if you will, when it comes to 2021 and beyond. 


Again, empathy, like we’ve all said. Be the chief empathy officers. I love that, and I’m going to steal that by the way. So that needs to be part of our mantra and our focus. Making sure our leaders do that. Doing them more often like I just mentioned. Employees want more, right? So it’s not like you can do them on average. For the average employee, a leader cannot do too many check-ins. So people want more. And then lastly, just this importance of listening. We know that that goes hand-in-hand with the empathy piece. We’ve seen from just with sensitive conversations alone, it’s not so important about the leader knowing what to say or having the right answer. It means a lot. And a number of you called this out earlier. When we create the setting where people feel psychologically safe so that they can share. And when people share and they feel like they’re being listened to, then that helps in terms of building relationships when people feel like they’ve been understood. And so helping our leaders realize they don’t have to have the answers. They just need to listen. And that actually is huge. 


And then the last thing to mention is when it comes to these check-in conversations, we do this work with our clients about what are the two or three coaching questions that you want your leaders to use when they check in with folks? And so that check-in is, first, just how are you doing? Like we’ve already said many times over in this conversation, what have you been learning that you want to build on, right? Because, clearly, so much opportunity this year for learning. And then what new habits are you working on building, right? 


So maybe your organization has your set of questions that you use. These are the ones that we offer. But the real key being, focusing on questions, like this in a very consistent way over time. That is what being human-centric is all about. And we can use something that’s already existing in terms of process is the check-in conversation to help leaders continue to make this kind of connection, social connection with their people. 


[00:41:53] ROK: There was some question about what the difference between end of cycle and compensation conversation was. Could you speak to that just for a second?


[00:42:02] BS: Absolutely.  Yeah. So when we use the language of end of cycle, we mean that in the context of it could be the end of a project. Some particular initiative or work stream, what have you. So anything like that in terms of an event we’ll say or task. We lump all of that together in terms of end of cycle. We also include like if your organization does an annual review process, we call that. We put it in that bucket of end of cycle. 


We differentiate that or distinguish that from, say, a reward conversation where the point of that conversation is to talk about compensation. So whether there’s merit increase, bonus, promotion pay, whatever the case may be, right? And so we, again, just distinguish those two different types of conversations. We recognize a number of organizations, combine them. Our point of view and best practice based on what the science shows us about cognitive capacity is that a conversation like compensation shouldn’t be conflated with other topics, again, from a cognition standpoint.


[00:43:09] ROK: Yeah. Well, in interest of time, let’s move on to the fourth prediction or recommendation we have. Tom mentioned this earlier talking about growth mindset. Again, another topic that’s near and dear to my heart. In case you have never heard of growth mindset, let me just take 30 seconds to explain what it is. Dr. Carol Dweck, who’s a Stanford professor, studied kids and she found that, believe it or not, even in children there’re two different mindsets. One that drives performance and one that doesn’t. A fixed mindset is really about people who believe that their intelligence and their skill levels are innate and they can’t change it. They have what they have. And so they don’t want to be given lofty goals because they’re afraid of losing face if they don’t hit them. They don’t like feedback because they really can’t change. Risk-taking is kind of scary for them. They want to do what they know best and do that all the time, and that’s a fixed mindset, right? 


Then you’ve got growth mindset people who are like think of the athlete. Think of the woman who’s a high bar jumper, right? She sets the bar at – I’ve never been a hybrid jumper. So I might not have the right height, but go with me, four and a half feet. And she starts to run and she knocks the pole down and she puts it back up there and she says, “Well, maybe I need to run a little faster.” And she tries it again and she knocks the pole down. And she said, “Well, maybe I need to run a little farther out a little faster.” She keeps trying things and then she says, “Oh, this really isn’t working. Maybe I need a coach. I need to get some feedback. Maybe we need to watch a video of someone else doing it or read a book.” But an athlete is all about trying and pushing themselves, right? And then one day she makes it over the bar and she goes, “Yes!” And what does she do? She raises the bar to four feet and three quart – She raises the bar on performance and the process starts all over again. And failure is absolutely part of the learning journey and the success. 


So people with a growth mindset are all about that desire to get better and they don’t see mistake or error as a problem. They see it as a way to actually learn, right? So investing in growth mindset has never been more important than now. A growth mindset can actually help you be more nimble when the world is chaotic like it’s been. At NLI, we believe that growth mindset is a real foundation even for all the elements of performance management. It helps you be more resilient. It helps you flex and change in the face of lots of adversity. It helps you grow. It’s about getting better, not about looking good, right? 


And you can see some statistics about what a growth mindset environment actually drives in organizations. Increases in trust, in sense of ownership, in agreement that the company supports risk-taking. Something that’s very difficult for most companies to do. There’re some Silicon Valley companies that have failure graveyards in their lobby. I love that, because they’re saying it’s okay to take a risk as long as you learn from it. And then these companies foster more innovation. So we believe that it’s time to really invest in growth mindset. 


Just briefly, I want to mention something that many of you are probably familiar with if you’ve read the Stockdale Paradox. Jim Stockdale was a NAVY admiral who was a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War for seven years and he survived that. And he describes his ability to survive it as sort of a combination of growth mindset, right? Knowing that success was there. It’s going to happen. I can get there at some point with the deep acceptance of the harsh reality of the situation that he was in. And he actually says in the book that people who only thought that they would eventually be successful, only had the growth mindset part of the equation, didn’t make it. He had to also be grounded in the real reality of what was going on. And in this year where the harsh current reality is big for us, especially in the United States, but I would say around the world, balancing those two helps to make you more resilient.


[00:47:02] BS: Beautiful, Rob. And the last theme that we want to share that’s going to be important for 2021 is about feedback. So if you’re not familiar with our work in the space, we’ve done tons of research. And because of both what we’ve studied from a research perspective and what we see in the science when it comes to risk and threat, we have found that really the way to help ensure more feedback is taking place is to really build a culture where you can get people everyone asking for it. So here we’re showing you some publications if you’ve not read up on our research on this topic. But what we have found, when you have people really anchor on asking for feedback is several things. One, it’s better for the asker. So here we remove kind of the issues with risk and threat, because the asker is going to ask at a time and in a way that really works best for them. 


And Gabe, we can go to the next slide to share this with everybody these three points. Secondly, it’s better for the giver, because now from a giving perspective, I know that if Rob is asking me for feedback, he’s in that right mindset to be able to hear it and determine for himself what he actually will do with it. And, lastly, because it’s giving autonomy to that asker, then it increases the quantity. People can ask and get how much they need that’s either going to give them a sense to figure out how well they’re doing or not doing. Be informed in terms of how they’re perceived, right? There’s so much information that we gain when we’re asking for lots of feedback. And so that’s what we anchor on.


And then lastly we often get is because NLI focuses so much on asking, we get that question of, “Well, what about sharing?” Well, here you go. Both sides feel less threatened. You’re getting more. You can ask many people. And that is also key to reducing bias, right? Not just one person’s point of view. But if multiple people say it, then that tells us something that we really need to get our arms around. And lastly we’re getting the specific feedback that we need because we’re asking about the areas where we feel like we can use some help. 


So these what Rob and I have really outlined are just, again, for 2021, what’s going to be so key for us in terms of performance and thinking about it in terms of broader talent. What’s really going to help us accomplish the important goals that we have as talent leaders. So I’ll pause there and, Gabe, hand over to you, because I think there are a few things that you want to share with the audience.


[00:49:50] GB: Thank you so much, Rob and Barbara, for jogging our memories of 2020 and the strides we’ve taken to make performance practices more human and how we can continue these trends in 2021. We covered quite a bit.  You two covered quite a bit. And I wanted to make it easy for everyone in case they’d like to explore more with NLI in 2021. A quick poll, I just launched that. I want to make sure that’s as frictionless as possible. So I want to keep those options relevant to what you watch today. We can partner with you in 2021 to create brain-based approaches to your performance strategy with a variety of behavior change learning solutions. That’s that first option there. Executive briefing, consulting what we tend to call, thinking partnerships and any kind of individual learning opportunities like the brain-based coaching course or the certificate in the foundations of NeuroLeadership, which is open to everyone. So I’ll leave that poll up while I talk you through some other announcements. 


We had our annual summit just last month, our biggest ever, and we’re taking that energy and we’re already planning it for 2021. So just a reminder to hold that date, November 17th through the 19th. We’re crossing our fingers that we’ll be seeing you all in person by then. So a quick thanks also to all of you for attending. We love hearing from you. Your opinions and experiences are very valuable to us and hopefully each other. We are considering a number of season four topics coming up. So that’ll be another opportunity for us to hear what you’d like to hear. What we can help clarify for you. 


A couple other quick announcements. This was the last episode of season three of Your Brain at Work Live, but we’ll be back January 14th where we’ll be hosting Kimberly Fernandez of the Wonderful Company. Barbara and Kim will be kicking us off for the 2021. A season talking about Wonderful’s progressive performance practices. I almost tried to make a wonderful pun there. I really glad I didn’t, but there should be. There should be a link coming through in the chat there from Dalton and Eric.


[00:51:40] BS: They’re used to, Gabe, by the way.


[00:51:43] GB:  I sure. I know. It’s been a long year. Just another thing you can do, if you want to sign up, we have a number of product demos coming up in January and February around Focus, which will help us thrive through crisis. Decide about mitigating bias. A number of things Barbara and Rob have brought up today. And how to scale a culture of allyship with ally, the neuroscience of advocating for others. So lots of great ways to engage after this year is done. 


The last thing I’ll mention is to subscribe to Your Brain at Work podcast. This episode will be available next week if you want to share that with others or review a lot of the stuff you heard while you’re taking the dog for a walk. It’s a nice thing to have on your phone. And there are over 35 episodes. And you can subscribe on any platform you choose; Apple, Spotify, Google and many more. 


This otherwise concludes our formal presentation for today. I just wanted to say, again, thanks for being with us as we traverse this very challenging year. As I said at the top, we’ve been doing these Friday sessions since March, and this has been very much a community endeavor about how we move forward in these times. We hope you’ve gotten as much out of these Friday sessions as we have. So thanks for being with us. And there’s more to come. 


On behalf of the NLI team and our panelists, as we send you off to your holiday and new year breaks, we have a little saying that we’ve been doing to everybody. May your down time be merry, your insights big and bright. Happy holidays to all. And to 2020, bye-bye. Bye everybody. See you in 2021.


[00:53:12] ROK: Bye everybody.


[00:53:13] BS: Thanks everybody. Have a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year.




[00:53:19] GB: 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 producer is Danielle Kirshenblat, and Cliff David is our production manager. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. We’ll see you next time.




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