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How Your Brain Responds to Performance Rankings

It turns out the human brain hates performance rankings. Adverse reactions to numerical rankings and rating scales are wired deep into our neurological structure, doing more harm than good to your organization.

Research finds they lead to:

  • high levels of frustration
  • less willingness to take risks
  • colleagues working against each other

Not the outcomes you’re going for, that’s for sure.

Research on the human brain, illustrated in the video linked below, explains why:

  • Numerical labeling triggers the same fight-or-flight response (actually, it’s fight, flight or freeze, to be more accurate) that occurs in the brain when there’s a physical threat, priming us to react without thinking, like when you see a lion coming at you. That faster-than-thought reaction is helpful in the wild, but not in business.
  • Rankings reinforce an incorrect but widespread notion that people are either born smart or not, and not much can be done about it. “In a fixed work environment, this tells employees that their abilities are limited,” the video describes. “In this context, numbers implicitly come across as permanent. Difficult challenges are seen as an invitation to fail.”

In an article titled “Kill Your Performance Ratings,” Strategy + Business sums up the research by the NeuroLeadership Institute like this:

“Only one person feels neurologically rewarded by the PM exercise: the senior executive who oversees it.”

How can your company reverse these effects?

The authors recommend reframing evaluations by using the following techniques:

  • Provide managers and employees topics for discussion in a structured conversation. Topics might include career growth, contribution, collaboration and innovation.
  • Equip managers with recommendations for how to approach each topic.
  • Those open, guided conversations should focus on goals that employees set for themselves and how they see their progress.
  • Cultivate the notion throughout the organization that anyone can learn and improve. A growth mindset “encourages people to listen to feedback, set goals and put in the extra effort needed to succeed.”

“Working with the brain’s neuro responses, you can set up employees for more satisfaction and engagement, ultimately building a more powerful talent pool in your company,” the video concludes.

Here’s the full video, just under three minutes:

If you want to dive deeper into the research, you’ll find more here.