With unprecedented levels of uncertainty causing daily strains on our mental health, now is a time for leaders to embrace their role in supporting team members and driving engagement.
That’s especially true when it comes to performance conversations. What once might have seemed like a garden-variety performance check-in now may be fraught with fear of pay cuts and layoffs. At NLI, we’ve studied the science of social threat and unconscious bias enough to know that “normal” performance calls won’t work. If leaders have any hope of keeping their teams calm and engaged, it’s critical that they adapt to this new reality.
We know from the research on social threat and reward that people crave certainty, autonomy, and relatedness, especially in times of crisis. We like to understand our environment (certainty), we like to feel in control of our actions (autonomy), and we like to feel connected to others (relatedness). Major crises tend to rob us of all three—we feel uncertain, helpless, and alone.
Leaders can offset these sources of threat in their employees during performance conversations by sending positive signals in each domain.
Provide certainty by:
- Clarifying what work, goals, and processes will stay the same, what will change somewhat, and what will be fundamentally different.
- Aligning around goals and priorities, especially ones that are new or no longer relevant.
- Outlining the interim rules and processes.
Offer autonomy by:
- Encouraging individuals to identify and set their own goals.
- Allowing for passion projects if people have “extra” time.
- Giving space during performance conversations to discuss other topics.
- Engaging employees in goal- and priority-setting conversations.
Build relatedness by:
- Emphasising that stress is a normal and acceptable response in difficult times.
- Asking people what they need to ensure their environment is productive (e.g., noise cancelling headphones).
- Acknowledging how at-home work environments may impact productivity and overall performance.
Check your biases
The ongoing quarantine isn’t just a puzzle in mitigating threat, but of spotting moments of biased thinking and making newer, smarter decisions. We’ve written before about bias’ influence in performance conversations, but they’re worth revisiting in this new context.
Distance bias – Over-focusing on performance in the recent past.
How to mitigate the bias: Ensure year-end performance evaluations include a full picture of the past year, and do not over-focus on recent performance as people adapt to the new work environment, priorities, and expectations.
Similarity bias – Favouring people who are more similar to us than those who are different.
How to mitigate the bias: Pay attention to your internal reaction to others’ at-home work environments and clarify expectations (if there are any) for home office set-up and dress code.
Expedience bias – Collecting data or evidence that supports or confirms the impression we already have about a person.
How to mitigate the bias: Resist the urge to rely solely on the metrics closest at hand, and talk to colleagues throughout the organisation to gain a broader understanding of the employee’s contribution. Start the conversation by allowing the employee to articulate their achievements throughout the entire previous year.
As this crisis continues to evolve and transform, it’s critical that leaders maintain the ongoing performance conversations, to create a sense of normalcy. However, they also need to acknowledge that these are extraordinary circumstances, and the best practices are ones that keep the brain in mind—namely, minimising threats and mitigating bias through more frequent, brain-friendly check-ins.
If you haven’t yet included these priorities in your performance process, now may be the time to start.
By Devon Brown, PhD