The words “performance review” can be enough to make our skin crawl. Hearing the phrase “I need to talk to you later, '' or preparing to give someone else feedback can be enough to trigger a pit-in-the-stomach feeling. Although the rational part of our brain understands that performance reviews or tough conversations are a regular occurrence for modern-day professionals, our “Lizard Brain” can be very sensitive when it comes to anticipating potential threats, even if they aren’t physical. Acknowledging this natural response can generate better self-awareness during uncomfortable conversations and prepare us to give and receive information.
Threat vs. Reward
To ensure our survival, one of the primary functions of the human brain is to constantly scan the environment for potential threats or rewards. It’s a high-stakes role. Missing either could result in death, and the brain must evaluate the environment as quickly as possible.
Rather than relying on the more rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, this activity takes place in the limbic system, specifically the amygdala. When the amygdala senses a threat, it produces an automatic and instant response.
This is Your Brain on Stress
You may have heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response to stressful events. Our early ancestors depended on this response to stay safe in physically threatening situations - like running away from predators. While most things have changed since those hunter/gather days, our brain’s response to stressful events has not changed. The brain does not differentiate between physical threats and social threats.
If the brain registers a stimulus as threatening, we experience what Daniel Goleman coined in his book Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” When the amygdala hijacks the rational brain, it prepares us to respond to the threat in several ways. It releases cortisol, a hormone that increases blood sugar and suppresses the immune system so energy can be directed at addressing the threat, and adrenaline which restricts blood vessels, increases your heart rate, and dilates the bronchial passages to increase oxygen and blood flow to the muscles.
This results in those familiar physical manifestations of stress: increased heart rate, perspiration, racing thoughts, and stomach pain. With our rational brain temporarily shut down, it’s harder to listen, our memory function is compromised, and we can’t choose how we react.
It’s a Jungle Out There
According to David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute, there are five key social “domains” that can trigger the threat/ reward response, and our workplaces are filled with them. Rock identifies these in his SCARF model: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Per Rock, “Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, and Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.”
To the primitive part of our brains, the modern workplace is at least as threatening as the jungle. Feedback, especially developmental feedback, easily activates our stress response. While we may rationally understand that there is nothing inherently threatening about giving or receiving feedback, the overly vigilant amygdala is easily hijacked. When the brain starts signaling that we are in danger by preparing us to act, we literally cannot think straight.
Two Tips to Create a Brain-Friendly Approach to Feedback
1. Be sympathetic to your sympathetic nervous system:
An acute stress reaction to performance feedback or work conflict can make a bad situation much worse. Your brain cannot take in further information if it is already preoccupied with preparing you to react. One’s ability to listen and process new information drastically diminishes when the brain goes on high alert. By recognizing the mental shift into high alert mode, you can activate the frontal cortex and the rational brain to take over and prevent any emotional “snaps” to keep your reaction proportional to the situation.
Understanding how your brain reacts to perceived threats and identifying the physical stress response will help you respond appropriately. Knowing that the increased heart rate and rush of adrenaline you feel is an automatic response to perceived threats rather than a rational response to an actual threat will help you calm your sympathetic nervous system.
Preparing to give someone else feedback can add another layer of stress when you don’t know how the other person will react. If you begin to exhibit a fight or flight response, this could also trigger the other person to become stressed out and lead to an uncomfortable situation. Approaching a potentially stressful conversation with a calm and mindful demeanor will lower tension and communicate to the other person’s amygdala that you are not a threat.
2. Embrace the pause
The old advice about counting to ten or taking a few deep breaths is key. Suppose you are receiving feedback; practice pausing before responding. This will give your rational brain a chance to process the information so you can choose to react intuitively, not impulsively. Additionally, ensuring you are actively listening to the other person circumvents an ego bruise and will provide better opportunities for growth.
It’s vital to pause when you give feedback, especially when you can observe the stress response in yourself or someone else. Not only will you help create space for the other person, but you will also be able to use that moment to redirect your threat response. Taking a moment to recenter will shift the focus of the situation back to the conversation and away from assessing a potential social threat. A quick check to see if your frontal lobe is fully active is to look at the pros and cons of your next action. If you can do this, then your brain isn't hijacked. If you can’t, it’s best to give it more time instead of taking potentially rash action.
Our brains may be primed for stress responses, but feedback does not need to be stressful. Understanding how we subconsciously interpret stress stimuli allows us to understand ourselves and how we can continuously grow into the best leaders and team players!