How the brain responds to feedback - IEDP
  • Managing people

How the brain responds to feedback

The fifth and final note in this short series on your brain at work looks at neurological foundations of why positivity matters when leaders communicate with their people.


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A major theme I have highlighted throughout these articles has been the primacy of the limbic system (emotional brain) over the pre-frontal cortex (analytical or executive brain). We have looked at the process by which people make meaning of events and that the source of our basic emotions is found in the amygdalae. These two extraordinary little bits of kit act on all sensory data we receive like two ticket barriers through which lots of people must pass at a station during rush hour and then be directed somewhere. The amygdalae trigger attachment (positive) emotions or avoidant (negative) emotions, which are then distributed into the cortex for more precise meaning and action.

Interestingly, positive emotions generally work in an opposite way to negative emotions. So, while emotions like fear, anxiety, stress and anger narrow our focus, inhibit our concentration and decrease our cognitive abilities, positive emotions can do the opposite. When we are feeling upbeat and happy, we are more likely to have an inclusive focus than a self-centred outlook, and to perform better on cognitively demanding tasks.

We have mentioned before why this happens at the biological level: as the limbic system is activated in response to some form of threat or stress, it draws precious metabolic energy away from the pre-frontal cortex. The result is that our brains struggle to perform at their highest - or even normal - capacity as the amygdalae take over and prepare the body for crisis. When we are stressed or scared, for instance, we struggle to think clearly, co-ordinate well with others, take in new information and come up with new ideas.

However, when the limbic brain produces attachment (positive) emotions, something else seems to happen. Daniel Goleman is one of many who has found causal links between heightened prefrontal activity and positivity, driving enhanced mental functions such as creative thinking, cognitive flexibility and faster processing. An added benefit seems to be the activation of the left prefrontal brain regions, which serve to reinforce good feelings by anticipating how we will feel when we reach a long-term goal.

Goleman’s book "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence" suggests a measure of the effect of positivity is looking at the length of time we can maintain a positive outlook after something good happens. In a study of participants with depression, control subjects with no mental illness were able to hold onto positive feelings for much longer than those with symptoms of depression.

Why leaders need to learn to be positive in communication

Goleman reviewed several experiments highlighting the power of the positive, one showing how the emotional tone of a leader delivering news to an employee had more impact than the news itself;, and another showed the osmotic effect of being more upbeat and how it can rub off on your employees, helping them to be more efficient and co-ordinate better.

Employees are also more likely to remember negative interactions than positive ones and spread negativity among other employees. It is believed that social pain is hardwired into the brain in a way that physical pain is not, hence we can re-live it over and over in our minds, years after an event.

David Rock amusingly noted a few years back that the performance appraisal seems doomed from the start, given it means nothing more than "Let me tell you what other people are saying about you". He is right. The person doing the feedback is starting at a serious disadvantage, the recipient's brain being on high alert and unlikely to optimise his or her cognitive abilities and think much about any points being raised. The importance of creating good conditions for a conversation and more than a passing consideration for the feelings of the individual concerned cannot be overestimated.

I have also mentioned in this series how attention and focus change the brain, literally and quickly, by building and strengthening new neural pathways or templates. Goleman looked at how talking about positive goals and dreams can be a better way to encourage employees. Richard Boyatzis, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, explained that focusing on what someone needs to do to “fix” themselves will effectively close them down to new possibilities or ideas.

Focus on new behaviours, situations or possibilities promotes fast neural growth and is a whole lot quicker than focusing on problems, where you effectively try to repair retarded circuitry in the brain. Cognitive-based coaching that focuses too much on problem areas does little apart from maintaining focus on those things, entrenching circuits associated with those problems anyway. Other studies looking at the emotions of high-performing business teams show the most effective ones had nearly three good feelings for every negative one.

3 steps to positive leadership

Improving the positive ratio of your own team can be as simple as making some important changes to your own leadership approaches.

1. Listen and show empathy: Without trust that flows from these, your people cannot develop a stable base at work so they feel comfortable to explore and take risks with their thinking. Most of your people are paid to think, so get on and create conditions for that to happen.

2. What they learn over what they earn: Making your employees feel heard and understood can actually improve their physical health as well as their mental well-being. As I have mentioned in this series many times, giving people ownership is key. Simply listening to your employees helps them to offload their negative feelings and release tension. Carrying around anxiety or frustration can hinder an employee’s performance, so try to tap into how they are feeling on a regular basis. In a survey of employees at seven hundred companies, the majority said that a caring boss was more important to them than how much they earned.

3. Work with the person, not the problem: Our sense of engagement and satisfaction at work results in a large part from the hundreds and hundreds of daily interactions we have while there, whether with a boss, colleagues or clients. Culture at work and how well people get along is a key point of talent attraction and the EVP. Cultures flow down, not up and in big heavily matrixed firms, positive chemistry among team members could make a big difference to your overall company culture.

Millions of pounds spent on leadership programs suggests companies have thought about this a lot. Having the confidence to lead with humanity seems so simple, but yet is seemingly elusive. Make 2014 the year you exchange criticism for encouragement, and things will start to improve in your teams. And that’s a promise.

About the author:

James Parsons has extensive experience coaching people in leadership roles in professional services firms, financial services and law firms, as well as offering workshops in areas such as networking, career management, team behaviours and using social media effectively.


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