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How your brain responds to performance reviews

Today’s leading organizations are rethinking the way they approach performance reviews. Synthesizing an entire year’s worth of work into an hour-long conversation—if that is even possible—is hard work. When feedback is given once a year, it’s almost never timely. And it’s hard for them to be  accurate, since managers might be influenced by recency bias, only focusing on the employee’s most recent successes and failures.

To make matters worse, the whole process takes a lot of time for everyone involved and causes a lot of undue anxiety. In fact, research shows that annual performance reviews actually messes with our minds a bit. Specifically, there are two psychological reasons why relying on annual reviews alone is the wrong approach to performance management:

  1. Performance reviews trigger a “fight or flight” response. Constructive criticism can cause certain areas of our brains to shut off because we think we’re under attack—which makes it hard to think creatively or focus broadly. Instead of engaging in a constructive conversation, these physiological responses can lead to employees and managers becoming more confrontational and adversarial during annual assessments.
  2. Rankings suggest people are static. Grading employees on a numeric scale assumes that people are static, i.e., that they are incapable of changing. Yet we know from Dr. Carol Dweck’s research that it’s possible for everyone to adopt a growth mindset and continue learning new ideas and new skills.  

This being the case, it comes as no surprise that most traditional performance appraisals aren’t accurate. One study, for example, found that two-thirds of employees who earn the highest rankings during annual reviews aren’t the strongest members of the team. Traditional appraisals aren’t too helpful, either. A different analysis found that at least three out of every 10 appraisals translated into decreased performance.

This makes perfect sense: When an employee feel uncomfortable or frustrated during a once-a-year meeting, that individual isn’t likely to go back to their desk and reach peak productivity anytime soon. Instead, they’re likely to disengage—and maybe even start looking for a new job altogether.

More research finds that traditional performance reviews can also lead to employee frustration, competitive nastiness, and a decreased willingness to take risks, among other things.

The whole purpose of performance management is to help employees develop new skills, develop their careers, and continue improving. When a company’s performance appraisal system ends up discouraging workers instead of helping them become the best versions of themselves, something has to change.

Performance management: A new way forward

The good news is that a major shift is occurring in the field of performance management. Instead of exclusively using yearly reviews to appraise performance, smart companies are moving to fluid, comprehensive, and continuous performance management programs that enable managers to deliver feedback to their teams more effectively.

Modern performance management systems include a number of different components, such as:

Neuroscience tells us that the way companies have traditionally handled performance reviews often does more harm than good. While companies may be tempted to try to streamline their programs by throwing out performance reviews altogether, doing so can cause serious problems. For example, we’ve found that when companies move toward a system based solely on real-time feedback, the entire feedback process becomes less transparent—which can demotivate employees.

But overhauling your performance management system so that annual reviews become one tool out of many used to measure and improve a worker’s contributions—instead of the lone qualifier--can make a huge difference.

Luckily, today’s best performance management programs are well-rounded and leverage several or all of the above tools.  Use an appraisal program that encourages employees instead of one that works against them. As a result, your employees will be more engaged and happier—making your customers happier, too.