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This is Your Brain on Performance Reviews

Evan Rodd, PayScale

You’re shivering, scared, and an overwhelming feeling of doom has suddenly washed over you. Your palms are sweating, your knees are shaking, and your mouth has suddenly run dry. As you creep slowly towards the door, your mind is suddenly racing with terrible thoughts of what fate has in store for you on the other side…

This might seem like a scene out of a campy horror movie, but alas, it is the reality many of us face when walking into our annual performance review. No matter how confident we are in our job performance, reviews are a major cause of stress for employees and managers alike. For many, reviews seem to have a strong focus on the areas where improvement is needed, and sometimes this news is not delivered in a particularly accessible manner. Attach that to worry about needing to find another job, and you’re looking at a stressed-out team, and a drop in productivity all around.

Performance reviews do not always have to result in tears, however. It seems that much of this stress does not come from the content of the review, but rather the manner in which said review is presented.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has found that feelings of anxiety and stress have an impact on which side of our brain is activated during a conversation; this affects the way we internalize feedback. The science behind his findings is simple: When we are in good spirits, the left side of our brain is activated. This is the side that deals with much of our logic, reason, and critical thinking skills. Likewise, when we are feeling down our right brain is activated. This is the side responsible for our gut reactions, as it is responsible for processing emotions and feelings.

What does all of this have to do with performance reviews? The stress of the review process doesn’t come from the feedback itself, but rather the manner in which the feedback is presented. Reviews that are delivered with a positive, upbeat tone tend to have a better impact on employee productivity, regardless of the content. Even when discussing areas for improvement, the tone of the review makes all the difference in how the feedback is applied to the job in question. On the contrary, positive news presented in a negative or un-empathetic tone of voice sends that right brain into high gear once again, almost invalidating the positive intent. Generally speaking, employees who have shut off their logic and reasoning probably don’t perform as well as those who have had the same skills stimulated.

The purpose of reviews is to improve employee performance, and ultimately the bottom line of your company. We’ve discussed how adopting more open communication policies between employees, management, and HR can have an astounding influence on your company’s success, and it may be wise to adopt similar policies in regards to the review process. Instead of waiting until that fateful day to list all the areas an employee may need to up their game, provide feedback as instances occur, and encourage employees to ask questions or seek clarification when needed. HR professionals should also consider evaluating how management communicates this feedback – It’s great if it’s in the moment, but only if it’s constructive. Poor communication from management creates stressed out employees who become less productive, and then create more stress for management. It’s a vicious cycle that ultimately results in your company losing money, or top talent. Whether it’s the review process, or your compensation strategy, a cohesive and communicative team can only contribute to long-term success, growth, and continued development.

We’d love to hear from you! What are some techniques you’ve found useful when giving feedback to employees? 


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1 Comment

  1. 1 Anna Carroll 20 Oct
    I love this! Performance reviews can be such a demoralizing experience for all involved!!!

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