Feedback: Reach the Heart Through the Brain

Never turn down a breath mint. Feedback is a gift.

Of course the gift’s presentation can make a big difference.

Performance accountability is among the most important parts of a leader’s role. Yet many leaders are simply inept at providing feedback and coaching that helps more than hurts.

In fact, implicit (or explicit) blame is a prominent ingredient in many of the “coaching” messages leaders send. Unfortunately, blame is the water in which dreams and relationships drown.

Dr. Tim Irwin, an organizational psychologist and executive coach, believes there’s a better way. His research shows the right kind of positive affirmation has a profound effect on a person’s brain—an effect that promotes a sense of personal well-being which leads to better performance. Criticism, he says, produces the opposite effect.

Dr. Irwin has invested a career in advising, studying, and learning from thousands of leaders around the world. He’s consulted for a wide range of U.S. companies including SunTrust Banks, Chick-fil-A, IBM, Gerber, Coca-Cola and Ritz Carlton.

He details a fresh approach to feedback his new book Extraordinary Influence: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others. I asked him to share some of his insights.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You report on brain research that highlights “affirmation” as a powerful influencer. In layman’s terms, what is affirmation and how does it differ from a pat on the back?

Tim Irwin: Who doesn’t like a sincere compliment? My wife wore a new Spring outfit this morning, and as she left for work, I told her she looked nice. She smiled, said thank you and then immediately made sure I remembered we were having dinner with neighbors tonight. A compliment goes skin deep. It conveys esteem and appreciation, but a compliment is not a deep affirmation of who we are.

The word affirmation originates from the Latin affirmationem, which means to make steady, to confirm and to strengthen. The deepest form of affirmation strengthens our core—our very sense of self.

Brain research strongly supports the dramatic benefits of deep affirmation. Affirmation helps people feel more optimistic and work more productively.

Duncan: What role should affirmation play in a leader’s day-to-day interaction with others?

Irwin: In a work context, it’s important to affirm someone’s competence. “You did an excellent job of presenting the budget update at the Executive Team meeting. Everyone agreed that the clarity you created with the new report really helped our decision-making process.” This type of affirmation should be routine and frequent.

Occasionally, an opportunity presents itself to go deeper—to reach the core of another person. The language that speaks to our core affirms who we are—the person inside us. This type of deeper affirmation is called “Words of Life.”

What is the common thread in Words of Life? These powerful words speak about our character—the unassailability of our inner person. Words of Life address the dimensions of our core and speak the vocabulary of our core, such as integrity, courage, resilience, judgment and authenticity. When spoken authentically, these words can actually transform someone we lead.

Duncan: You say performance appraisals often involve a “negativity bias.” If that’s true, how can a leader hold people accountable for good results without unintentionally demotivating or discouraging them?

Irwin: Even the brains of the most confident among us are constantly scanning the environment and asking “Am I safe?” We do not typically face physical threats in our work settings, but we constantly face “emotional threats”—criticism from our boss, sniping from our rivals and the ever-present political maneuvering that goes on even in healthy organizations.

The workplace is filled with “Words of Death,” those expressions that say, “No, I’m not safe.” Favorite unthinking phrases of some leaders employ even “violent” language to convey they are in control, such as, “I’m going to hold your feet to the fire”—a favorite torture method in the middle ages, designed to get heretics to convert.

Our brains are hyper sensitive to criticism or anything else that feeds the brain’s “negativity bias”—the tendency to react defensively to anything we view as a threat, physical or emotional. Our brain’s amygdala engages and tends to shut down the prefrontal cortex and other parts of our brain that’s responsible for innovation and problem solving. To drive this home, I’ve started a petition to ban the phrase “Constructive Criticism.” This phrase is truly an oxymoron.

It’s for these reasons that the typical performance appraisal session is the most hated event in corporate life, by both the recipients and the givers. We typically go into these sessions with our negativity bias fully operational. The interpersonal clumsiness with which most performance appraisals are administered justifies this wariness.

Duncan: What conclusions (and recommended practices) should we draw from studies that highlight the negative effects of criticism?

Irwin: I interviewed a large number of CEOs of large and highly successful companies. Almost every one of them described a former boss instrumental in their development who was very tough on them. The bosses they described were hard-nosed, exacting and had unrelenting expectations of excellence in their performance. Regardless of how these expectations were conveyed, the common denominator of everyone I interviewed was the constantly reinforced underpinning that, “I’m for you.” The clear indication, in every case, was that, “I want you to be and expect you to be successful, and I have great confidence in your abilities and your character.”

Duncan: What are the most effective ways to bring out the best in someone who is clearly underperforming?

The need for “contrary feedback” is ever present. We all make mistakes and are in need of improvements in how we handle tasks and the relationships in our work life. The question that should be on the forefront of every leader’s mind is “how do we effectively help the underperformer?” Brain research indicates that contrary feedback engages the receptive parts of the brain by linking the needed “course correction” to the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the recipient and/or the mission, strategy, goals and values of the organization.

While some individuals simply do not belong in a given role or even in a particular organization, the narrative that is implanted into the collective psyche of an organization when an underperforming worker grows and realizes their potential is of paramount value to the health of any organization’s culture. This redemptive outcome is far more likely when we engage the right parts of the brain.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
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