At most organizations, performance conversations are treated as a painful necessity—an unavoidable chore that’s unpleasant for managers and employees alike. At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we see this as a missed opportunity. When performance conversations are improved, every interaction between a leader and an employee becomes an opportunity to inspire learning, growth, and discretionary effort. In other words, it cultivates workplace engagement, the holy grail of employee satisfaction and talent retention.
Performance conversations fall into six main categories: goal setting, feedback, check-ins, end-of-year, compensation, and career. Though each type of conversation demands its own strategy, all six rely on the same foundational science. All six types can be improved—along with non-performance conversations, which also play into engagement at work—if leaders follow three neuroscience-based principles: minimize social threat, focus on continuous growth, and facilitate insight.
1. Minimize social threat
The main reason performance conversations are so ineffective is that they’re frightening. For an employee, hearing a manager say “Can I give you some feedback?” can be the emotional equivalent of hearing footsteps behind them in a dark alley.
When leaders talk to employees about their performance, it’s easy to trigger a “threat state” in the brain that impairs the ability to think clearly. Working memory is impaired, abstract thinking is compromised, and comprehension is diminished. Rather than reflecting on what they can do better, employees in this “fight, flight, or flee” state either look for a way to leave the conversation or resist suggestions and long-range goals. Recommendations go in one ear and out the other.
The most powerful way to improve performance conversations, then, is to minimize threat. And research suggests the best way to do that is to build a “culture of feedback” in which employees are encouraged to ask their managers for feedback rather than waiting to receive it unsolicited.
A NeuroLeadership Institute study found that when feedback is requested, it’s less threatening than when it arrives unsolicited. Putting employees in charge of when and where feedback conversations take place gives them a sense of autonomy and control, keeping the brain in the relaxed and open state it needs to reflect on the past and think clearly about the future.
2. Focus on continuous growth
There’s nothing more demotivating to employees than making performance conversations feel like ledgers of all the ways they’ve failed. Rather, managers should be helping employees to learn faster, become more resilient, and see their own mistakes as opportunities to improve. Not only does this make employees feel acknowledged and valued, it also reinforces the spirit of curiosity, exploration, and playfulness that leads to innovation.
We advise all of our clients to frame performance conversations around a growth mindset, focusing not just on results, but effort; not just on achievements, but learning, growth, and development over time. In this way, progress and outcomes can be mutually reinforcing.
3. Facilitate insight
One of the most impenetrable challenges of performance management is making employees feel ownership over their work, motivating them to accept and implement a manager’s feedback with the same passion as if they were running their own company. That’s why we advise leaders to treat performance conversations less as conduits for channeling prescriptive guidance to employees, and more as opportunities to ask questions that lead employees to creative insights of their own.
An insight is the sudden rush of understanding when everything comes together in your mind—that “aha moment” when you make a connection, spot a pattern, or perceive the solution to a long-vexing problem. When insights occur, the brain’s chemistry often changes: dopamine may spike, intrinsic reward networks can be activated, and you may feel a positive emotional charge, generating far greater excitement, engagement, and motivation to take action than if someone simply told you the answer.
Our work at NLI has shown that moments of insight aren’t random. Managers can spur employees to generate insights of their own by doing less telling and more asking—and in particular, by asking questions that prompt employees to reflect deeply about their own goals.
Even as organizations become more data-driven and technology-focused, the key to employee engagement lies on a far more human level. The most powerful way to boost employee engagement, our experience suggests, is to improve the quality of conversations.