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Why Performance Reviews Underperform: An Explanation from Neuroscience

If you have been watching what has been happening in the world of Performance Management you are probably wondering why the pendulum has swung so far. Why are so many big companies and senior HR leaders, who swore for decades that performance reviews were so critical suddenly saying they are no longer needed? Why are companies like Deloitte and Accenture saying no thank you to the annual review?

It’s Not That Feedback Is Wrong, It’s the Frequency

The quick answer is because we have gone about our feedback process all wrong. Some people are truly only getting meaningful feedback once per year, or maybe 3 or 4 times if they are lucky. It’s called the annual review after all. And we’ve discovered that feedback once per year is about the worst thing we can do to people. Why? Because the infrequency puts the brain on high alert.

The Frequency Problem Drives Neuroscience Implications

The SCARF model explains a lot about what’s wrong with the annual review. David Rock, leader of the NeuroLeadership Institute is credited with developing the SCARF model which

is built on three central ideas about our limbic systems:

  1. The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and reward

  2. The capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response

  3. The threat response is more intense and more common and often needs to be carefully minimized in social interactions.

The insight that the SCARF model gives us into what creates these social threats is very helpful.

Status: Our relative importance to others

Certainty: Our being able to predict the future

Autonomy: Our sense of control over events

Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others

Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

As we interact with others, our limbic system is scanning for these threats and is ready to jump into action. David Rock jokes that the performance review is a bombardment of psychological threat to the receiver of the review:

  1. The manager is my superior – STATUS THREAT!

  2. I don’t know what they’re going to say in this review – CERTAINTY THREAT!

  3. I can’t control the outcome of this meeting, my manager does – AUTONOMY THREAT!

  4. My manager is part of a different peer group that mine – RELATEDNESS THREAT! And finally:

  5. I don’t know how those other people are being rated, but I bet I’m being more harshly judged than them – FAIRNESS THREAT!

When the Brain is in Flight-Fight-Freeze Response It’s Impossible to Learn

And so, as these threats go through the mind of the reviewee, we see a variety of Flight-Fight-Freeze responses. The person who cries at the slightest criticism. The person who defends themselves against everything that is said and rejects the feedback of the manager utterly. And the person who sits in stony silence as the review is delivered, nodding now and again as they tolerate the conversation.

However, for managers who have had good ongoing feedback with their direct reports throughout the year, they do not get this response at all. They have a healthy dialogue, exchange views, talk through some finer points, and make a few notes on small amendments to make. There are no surprises and the conversation flows. The reviewee is relaxed, because this is the same as many other conversations they have had on a regular basis.

So, What Should We Do About Feedback?

The research shows that feedback given on a weekly or biweekly basis produces the highest performance against objectives. Any feedback given with longer intervals and performance starts to drop.

And there you have it, the plug for the weekly one on one with your direct reports. The caveat is, it is not enough to just talk about project status and run through ‘the business’. Your direct report needs you to give them feedback about them directly and their behaviours, the ‘how’ of their work during every one on one, or else the feedback becomes a larger and larger threat to them as time goes by.

Sherry Pedersen-Ajmani is an Organizational Development consultant in Toronto and Principal at Talentcraft. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter @SP_talentcraft.

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