The art of performance feedback motivators

PerformanceWe are often frustrated when staff don’t take the right action, for example, when people consistently miss important deadlines. The approach often taught is to give “remedial or constructive criticism” (negative feedback)” and mix it with some positive feedback to soften it.  If you mix the two, in what is called the ‘CRC method’ (commend recommend commend) or ‘sandwich technique’, the person only remembers the bad or negative bit, not the good. You waste your opportunity for reward.

Research by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz suggests that this carrot and stick approach to motivating people rarely works in the long run. All it does is get people focused on what went wrong in the past, energy gets wasted on excuse finding, and the habitual negative thinking is reinforced. The status quo remains “less than satisfactory performance”.

Why is that?

Well the reason lies in part of our brain physiology and function. One of the things that has kept the human species alive and enabled us to fight for our place on earth is a very primitive part of the human brain, called the reptilian brain or brain stem. The reptilian brain and also parts of our limbic brain, gear us up to be super sensitive to possible threats in our environment.

This came in handy when we were confronted with a lion in the jungle. In milliseconds, our reptilian/limbic brain would gear our body up to fight the lion or flee, otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It does this by removing blood from the thinking part of the brain (cerebral cortex and parts of the limbic brain) and pumping it in to muscles in our legs and arms. Our ability to think laterally and creatively, is shut down. Instead all we do is react, fight the lion or run.

What negative feedback does is it activates the same fight or flight reaction in the brain, we perceive the negative feedback as a threat (a lion). In other words the brain will process a psychological (or emotional) threat (negative feedback), the same way as a physical threat. We literally don’t hear the positive feedback sandwiched with the negative feedback. The positive feedback is wasted.

To develop staff performance, it is very important to use positive reinforcement feedback only. When someone learns something new, they have to change the way their brain is wired up. This ability of the brain to change with learning is what is known as Neuroplasticity.
As we learn, we acquire new knowledge and skills through instruction or experience. In order to learn or memorize a fact or skill, there must be persistent functional changes in the brain that represent the new knowledge. The ability of the brain to change with learning is what is known as neuroplasticity” (Neuroscience for Kids, University of Washington).

 To facilitate this learning or change (neuroplasticity) in the brain, we need positive feedback and encouragement from ourselves (positive self talk) and others. This calms the brain, and keeps the blood in the thinking part of the brain. It also releases handy chemicals like dopamine, which are important for interest and learning.

What happens if you’re not sure how to encourage someone’s performance development i.e. you can’t think of a positive comment?

Well a great way to solve it, is with a question. Our brain loves questions. For example the question could be “What can you learn from this?” “What are your learnings?” This enables the learner to volunteer their own areas for development (keeping the brain calm) and helps facilitate learning.

  1. Your Brain at Work, David Rock
  2. Neuroscience for Kids, University of Washington //
  3. Herrmann International //