The science (and common sense) suggests that regular coaching discussions are far more beneficial than some types of traditional performance discussions. When regular coaching sessions build trust, recognise achievement, build autonomy and help people grow, they create a climate that is positively charged to drive higher levels of performance. Unfortunately, whether it’s a one off or part of the annual appraisal process, traditional approaches to improve performance can create the type of negative emotion that hurts culture, impacts customers and stifles performance. But why is this and how could we approach this in a more positive way?

Evolutionary influences

In evolutionary terms our ancestor’s survival depended on how attuned they were to negative or bad events (potential or otherwise). The ‘fight or flight’ response (and the associated release of ‘stress hormones’ adrenalin and cortisol) still lives on beyond the time when we were regular prey items for some pretty nasty predators. When you add in an unhealthy dose of negativity bias (our predisposition to let negative thoughts and emotions have a disproportionate effect on us) we have a brain that is constantly scanning for and focusing on threat. When approached in the wrong way, appraisals and performance discussions can trigger the same responses, seriously limiting the prospect of a sustainable improvement in performance.

Emotional balance

Being positive all of the time, is not only annoying and unrealistic, but like most things in life, could also be bad for you. Most people live in a daily whirl wind of competing personal and professional priorities and recognising and effectively dealing with negative emotion is an essential part of coping with the realities of life. For example, studies have shown that mindfulness training helps individuals overcome anxiety, not by minimising the negative feeling, but by helping people accept and deal with it appropriately. So, bottom line, you simply can’t ignore negative events and emotions, the key is using your Emotional Intelligence to work with emotions in a smarter way, aimed at getting the right outcome for you, the individual and the organisation.

Positivity ratio

A growing body of evidence supports a tipping point or ratio when positive emotions can successfully outweigh negative ones and according to research by Barbara Fredrickson that ratio is greater than 3:1. Having the right ratio of positive emotion helps individuals and teams flourish and perform at a higher level in the first instance. Then if at some point in the future you need to focus on a performance issue, you’ve already built up a positive emotional bank balance, that you can make a withdrawal against without a significant increase in negative affect.

As discussed this isn’t about ignoring negative emotion, but rather tangibly increasing (or just recognising) positive emotion to get yourself, your team and your organisation flourishing and performing at a higher level. Click here to get your own positivity ratio and why not look at your own team, the results might surprise you.

Strategy & tactics

From a strategic perspective, the research findings on performance appraisals are compelling, this article in Psychology Today cites several studies and references concluding that they are ineffective tools for improving performance and research discussed in the HBR states that 70% of companies are considering changes to their performance management strategy going forward, for the same reason. From a tactical perspective, traditional methods like the ‘s#!t sandwich’ don’t work either. As discussed, our basic instincts and negativity bias conspire to amplify the negative feedback, increase negative emotion and negate the potential benefits of the positive part of the sandwich, by filtering it out. The likelihood of a great outcome under these circumstances is average at best and there’s one thing that great teams and organisations are not built on and that’s being average. So what’s the alternative?

A positive approach

Well according to Google there are 187 million possible alternatives to improve performance discussions, here are my tips for a more positive approach:

  1. Be specific and direct – don’t sandwich anything, just get straight to the point, it sounds counterintuitive, but your team will thank and respect you for being straight with them. Talk to the impact the performance is having on you, the team, customers and your organisation and include how it makes you feel.
  2. Use two specific examples – firstly, one that includes the specific issue or behaviour you want to address and secondly, the right behaviour or strength you’ve seen in use that could help address the issue. This moves you further into a positive state of emotion and leverages their strengths, which means they should be more energised, more creative and more likely to deliver a successful outcome.
  3. Listen for what is and isn’t being said– this is where your Emotional Intelligence gets a work out, so stay engaged and focused on what is and isn’t being said, including body language and emotional state. And don’t forget to self-monitor, throughout.
  4. Agree what’s next –help develop (rather than give) the solution and next steps. People with autonomy have much higher levels of positive emotion, which equals more creativity, broader thinking and ownership. Then agree the what, who and when of what’s next, including how you intend to help and support.
  5. Follow up – a key thing that impacts effective execution of any objective is making sure that there is a cadence of accountability and that means regular follow up against what was agreed. This provides the opportunity to recognize success, provide ongoing support and further coaching.

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