Brain Friendly Feedback

by Dr Robert Edmonson, Principal Consultant, Paradigm21 Group

Feedback is a GIFT….when given and received constructively

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” - Bill Gates

Do people want feedback? Yes, they do! People want to improve… especially the Generation ‘Y’ers. They crave ‘positive’ input on their performance. However, everyone fears being criticized…defending themselves or agreeing to something they don’t believe.

About 95% of Fortune 2000 companies use performance feedback programs. Companies view perormance evaluation as a key driver of talent development. It reviews, measures an individual’s skills, achievements, productivity and overall performance relative to established objectives. In the corporate world, both sides benefit from effective performance reviews:


  • Goals are clearly defined and agreed;
  • Expectations are aligned;
  • Knowledge flows consistently between management and employee;
  • Stretches thinking, increases motivation, drive, engagement and proactive thinking;
  • Inspired to learn new skills, apply and master new challenges;
  • Overall performance improves creating feeling of happiness.

About 85% of HR professionals are beginning to modify their approach to performance reviews.[/yjsgnote]


  • Reduces turnover;
  • Attracts new qualified employees;
  • Identifies abilities for future promotions;
  • Leverages competencies - improving productivity;
  • Reduces costs, increases bottom line profit;
  • Higher quality satisfying customers.

The Reality

Ineffective or improperly delivered performance appraisals demotivate, disengage and negatively impact staff retention.

Although both sides recognize the benefits... recent CEB (Corporate Executive Board) studies of managers and HR professionals indicate only 23% are satisfied with the organization’s performance appraisal structure. About 85% of HR professionals are beginning to modify their approach to performance reviews. Other issues to consider:

Employee Retention

A Gallup study of 80,000 managers in 400 companies found that ‘people leave managers, not companies’. They may join because of the company’s brand, image, benefits and other factors, but keeping them is another challenge. Ineffective or improperly delivered performance appraisals demotivate, disengage and negatively impact staff retention.

Management Resistance

  • All levels of management dislike giving performance feedback for a variety of reasons:
  • Creates anxiety for both the manager and employee;
  • Consumes large amount of time, attention, departmental budget;
  • Fear employees will actively resist, argue and get emotional;
  • Concerned appraisal session will damage relationships;
  • Will inspire employee to leave the company.

Motivation Method

Can you intimidate people to perform? Many managers use the traditional approach: fear. And yes, bullying does get results --- and then becomes the corporate culture that trickles throughout the firm. Everyone begins to mirror management. Research shows that while it does keep everyone focused and pressured to achieve, it is short-lived and unsustainable. Fear does not motivate, people only comply, but never commit.

Change Thinking & Behaviors

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”- Aristole

Management assumes performance feedback will change thinking and behaviors resulting in improved performance. The CEB study also indicated performance reviews generate only 3-5% improvement in staff performance.

Enthusiastic, satisfied, engaged employees are key assets that determine the company’s success or failure. Ineffective feedback can quickly create a negative mindset. However, when feedback is given properly it creates self-awareness of behavioral patterns. This awareness gives employees the opportunity to improve themselves by interrupting and replacing current habits with new thinking and behaviors.

“We don’t see things as THEY are, We see them as WE are.” - Anaïs Nin

Change is Possible

The good news is... new thinking and decisions create new habits. When conflicts occur between old and new mind maps, the brain identifies, collects and removes idle connections. Although employees have hard-wired habits, they can make ‘deliberate choices’ concerning what is really ‘best for them’ that creates new wiring that eventually becomes new behaviors.

Feedback = Threat

When humans hear the word ‘feedback’ or ‘change’ the brain immediately feels ‘threatened’.

How many performance evaluations have you either received or given that were stressful, confrontational, demotivating, offensive, insulting and failed to produce results? Each employee views feedback differently depending on their mindset. Some may accept feedback as a personal benefit --- others may view it as a personal attack.

When humans hear the word ‘feedback’ or ‘change’ the brain immediately feels ‘threatened’. So it’s best not to use these words before, during or after performance conversations. Research shows modifying behaviors in ‘threat’ state is very difficult. The brain subconsciously classifies any information as a ‘threat’. People then remain in their comfort zone of present thinking and habits.

S.C.A.R.F. Model

SCARF is a simple way to understand the brain’s reaction during feedback or any communication.

The human brain constantly evaluates for ‘threats or rewards’ then responds. The threat feeling is known as ‘social’ pain and very similar experience as ‘physical’ pain. Receiving feedback can actually have a negative impact on behavior and performance. However, without feedback people continue to think, act and behave in the same way.

The SCARF model was introduced by Dr. David Rock (2008) and based on extensive neuroscience research studies. It identifies the key triggers that control human behavior. SCARF is a simple way to understand the brain’s reaction during feedback or any communication. Individuals will experience all dimensions, however, personality and situation influence the rank order. Body language and comments provide clues into what they are experiencing. Here are some ideas to shift feelings from ‘threat’ to ‘reward:

Threat: How the performance review will enhance or diminish their image and status. Value and importance are key motivational drivers.

Reward: Allow employee to decide when and where you will meet. Maintain a positive attitude toward the employee’s team value. Clarify the appraisal will not negatively impact their status as the purpose is to help them strengthen their skills and value. Allow employee to control what and how they will improve.

Threat: Unclear on process, impact and potentially negative outcome. Wondering if they will lose their bonus, be demoted or fired. Research shows ‘uncertainty’ is the strongest threat feeling people experience.

Reward: Use transparent approach. Explain the process specifics with a goal of helping them understand improvement areas to strengthen their skills. When employee feels clear of process, next steps, rationale reasons and potential outcome the resistance is reduced.

Threat: Employee has no control over the content, process or outcome.

Reward: Ask employee when and where they would like to meet shifts control to them. Use collaborative approach. Ask open-ended questions, listen, don’t interrupt. As much as possible let the employee to control the conversation, offer ideas, opinions and options to feel more in control. Allow them to choose what actions they will take to improve.

Threat: Feels being judged, criticized and ostracized from others.

Reward: Ensure all comments are delivered in a objective, solution-focused, non-critical way. Employee must feel part of the team, not an outsider.

Threat: The process is unfair, manager biased, data unreliable. Any degree of unfairness generates a feeling of hostility, distrust and threat.

Reward: Use a transparent, fair, unbiased approach. Clearly that they are not being singled out as everyone is being appraised. Strengthening their competencies can lead to potential promotions, pay increases, bonuses. Maintain the focus on them and no comparison with others.

The SCARF dimensions provide a valuable framework to design a more supportive ‘non-threatening’ approach during performance conversations and for communicating with anyone.

‘Brain-Friendly’ Performance Conversations

“We tend to get what we expect.” - Norman Vincent Peale

Successfully transforming employee behaviors is not just quarterly or year-end performance reviews.  It’s about managers investing the time to have regular, ongoing, employee-driven conversations that are positive, non-threatening, solution-focused, empowering and future-based.  Feedback must be given right after the behavior to have impact. How?  Here are FIVE simple, practical, proven steps:

Step One: Expectations

Successfully transforming employee behaviors is not just about quarterly or year- end performance reviews.

Don’t assume employees know what is expected of them. Sure they have a job description, operating manual, attended meetings, received training and more. But they usually are not clear on the organizational and division’s objectives… which can be a primary reason for underperformance. 

Create a list of the organizational, division’s and your personal objectives.  To get employee buy-in, distribute the list during a team meeting to get their input and adjust accordingly. Now you have team consensus and can use the agreement during regular, brief, ongoing performance conversations.  As things change, update the list and repeat the process for staff support.

Step Two: Observe

Invest the time to observe the actions and behaviors of staff.  Don’t assume based on others opinions, gossip or stories.  Observing also uncovers any weaknesses in skills, abilities, competencies required to meet objectives and potential problems.

Step Three: Collaboration

Remember, the brain immediately goes into a ‘threat’ state ‘prior to’ and ‘during’ performance conversations.

Remember, the brain immediately goes into a ‘threat’ state ‘prior to’ and ‘during’ performance conversations. When people underperform, they already feel very negative. They are their own worst critics and continually think about the reasons the reasons for their failure which increases the mental hard-wiring that caused it ---- creating barriers to thinking and exploring possible solutions. Have a collaborative meeting to discuss:

Your Observations

Your observations must be impartial. Based on fact no assumptions.  During the performance conversation give specific, clear ‘behavioral’ examples you witnessed such as their actions, verbal comments, response to situations and more. 

Unbiased, fact based conversations are meaningful.  They inspire personal ownership and assessment of behaviors.  It uncovers gaps in expectations which can relate directly to performance.  Clearly describe observations such as:

  •  ‘ I have noticed that when you communicate with colleagues you speak very loud and aggressively. It makes them feel threatened and unwilling to interact with you.’

Current Situation

Employees expect to be reprimanded by management amplifying the negative emotions.  So surprise them and DON’T criticize their performance.  Instead use a ‘self-directed’ collaborative, coaching approach to reduce emotional feelings.  Do not focus on what went wrong and why. Stay solution, future focused and centered on the gaps to reach conclusions about why it exists:

  • ‘Could you please explain what is causing you to communicate that way?’

Reframe Thinking

Allow the employee to rethink the situation, reframe any negative comments, uncover what was learned, help them take personal ownership of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ and design action plan to improve:

  • ‘How would you advise someone else to handle a similar situation?’
  • ‘What’s another way of viewing this situation?’
  • ‘What can you learn from this event?’
  • ‘What could you do differently next time?’

Existing or Potential Barriers

Discuss any barriers that may interfere with their performance such as changes in the economy, reduced support staff, equipment damaged, budget constraints, technology issues and more. Then ask questions to set the framework for their actions such as:

  • “How can we best use the current technology to complete the current projects?”
  • “Based on the fragile economy, what do you think we can do to improve our performance?”
  • “It will take a few weeks to receive equipment replacement parts. What can we do to keep the project moving forward?”
“When we blame others, we give up the power to change.” - Anonymous

Step Four: Empower Action

Employees must ‘own’ the problem before they create ‘solutions’. Solutions must be employee driven, not pushed on them by management. Employees must clearly see the personal benefits of improvement.

Explore Solutions

Collaborating together to generate ideas, options and potential strategies helps reframe and stretch thinking.  Discussing a variety of opportunities allows the individual to consider possible options and then allow them to select the most appropriate path forward.  Some possible questions to ask:

  • ‘What ideas do you have to avoid a repeat of this situation?’
  • ‘What steps or measures could help you move things forward?’
  • ‘What else do you feel might be connected to this situation?’
  • ‘What would help to continue the momentum?’
  • ‘What would be one more possibility you could consider?’
  • ‘What do you think are the best next steps at this point?’

Offer Your Input

Offer your advice in a ‘storytelling’ way to quickly get their attention.

We know that ‘telling’ is non-productive and people don’t listen. But, there are times when offering input, insights and practical advice to steer conversation based on your experience is valuable. To ensure the employee keeps an open mind - carefully consider your words, as the approach must feel non-judgmental, clear, respectful, and practical.

Sometimes you’re specifically asked for your expertise, wisdom or guidance. Offer your input in a ‘storytelling’ way to quickly get their attention. But keep it short and direct, quickly as possible and return to ‘listening’ and ‘asking questions’:

  • ‘What about another way of looking at this such as…
  • ‘What do you think about... ?’
  • ‘May I offer my experience with handling a situation like this?’
  • ‘Have you ever considered... ?’
  • ‘I have a friend that has experienced the same situation…perhaps discussing his   situation may be helpful to you... may I offer some background?’
  • ‘Perhaps it would be valuable to consider looking at…
  • ‘What about... ?’

Reach Mutual Agreement

Next step is to reach mutual agreement on how they can improve the situation. Reinforce the expectations and actions they will take.

  • ‘So, based on our discussion can we agree that...?’
  • ‘What will be your next step to implement your ideas?’
  • ‘What do you think is priority one and priority two?’
  • ‘What specific resources do you need to make this happen?’

Action Plan

Remembering mutual agreed actions during the conversation is difficult.  During effective performance conversations employees feel inspired, empowered to develop new mental maps forward. To help them transform their thoughts, ask the employee to create their Personal Action Plan using simple C.A.R. Model to design their plan:

  • Challenge: Describe each specific area they want to improve
  • Actions: Outline the specific actions they will take to achieve success
  • Results:  Illustrate the outcomes they achieved

Step Five: Ongoing Conversations

Actively listen, pause, don’t interrupt or offer any input... just remain silent, nod your head.

During subsequent performance conversations, ask the employee to rank their example for each improvement area.  Important to actively listen, pause, don’t interrupt or offer any input….just remain silent, nod your head.  No matter the description or number, ask them if there is anything you can do to support them and what they will do to continue strengthening their skills.

You can ask easy, non-threatening, supportive questions to generate voluntary participation and more reflection. After a few questions you will see, hear and feel where their energy is heading which usually helps formulate the next question.  Some possible questions:

  • ‘How could I best help you at this point?’
  • ‘How do you see the situation?’ ‘What would you like it to look like?’
  • ‘Have you considered...?’  ‘Perhaps you should look at... What about...?’
  • ‘How can you shift your thinking to envision even greater possibilities?’
  • ‘If you did it over again, what would you do differently?’
  • ‘What are some of the possible options to consider?’
  • ‘How committed are you to changing the situation?’

Go See For Yourself

It’s not ‘what you know’ but ‘what you don’t know’ that set managers up for failure.

To reinforce your performance conversations, agree on periodic non-formal check-ins that last about 10 minutes.  It’s not ‘what you know’ but ‘what you don’t know’ that set managers up for failure.  Use the Japanese concept of ‘Genchi  Genbutsu’ meaning ‘go see for yourself’.   

Visit employees not just in-between performance conversations or when a crisis hits but to follow up, share and identify potential problems to avoid or reduce impact.

Showing up demonstrates respect, appreciation, support and commitment to them and the   company. It also allows the opportunity to connect with others mentally and physically, to observe, ask meaningful questions, actively listen and offer advice when appropriate.

[yjsgnote color="yellow" close="no" title="" border="default" radius="radiusb2" icon=""]‘Drop by’ interactions must create fear, intimidation or become interrogations. They must be unplanned, relaxed, collaborative, casual  discussions.[/yjsgnote]

Investing the time and effort to personally connect with others makes everyone feel like a partner. Why is that important? Because when others feel emotionally involved they are motivated, feel valued, increase their performance expectations producing better results and are totally committed to personal and organizational success.

‘Drop by’ interactions must create fear, intimidation or become interrogations. They must be unplanned, relaxed, collaborative, casual  discussions. If staff feels your visit is an excuse to monitor activities, interrogate, criticize or pressure  them, it will immediately de-motivate everyone and negatively impact productivity. Some Success Tips:

Tip 1: When? Regularly, but vary the times. Don’t overdo and create interruptions or convey a feeling of constantly being observed.

Tip 4: How? It’s best to go alone for one-to-one encounters without anyone accompanying you which could distract or inhibit conversations.

Tip 5: Appreciation. Recognize individual efforts with public appreciation   announcements being specific in what they did great. Others will take note and learn.  Also, once someone is told specifically ‘how’ they were outstanding, they will not only repeat the act but will perform even better next time.

Tip 9: Something Right. Mentally look for what they are doing right, not wrong. Show appreciation for their efforts and competencies. Recognize their skills and compliment them. Look for opportunities to improve.

Tip 17: Ask their Advice.  Seek their insights and experience on how to make things better, creative and innovative ideas. Record their ideas on paper, then follow up on them with a short email or hand written note.

Feedback Success Guarantee

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” - Ken Blanchard

Studies indicated that performance really improves when managerial performance conversations are supplemented with ongoing personal development programs. Support can include 1:1 personal coaching, group | team coaching, skill specific training and leadership development programs.