During performance reviews and other such discussions, focusing on what people may have done wrong makes them defensive and blinkers the mind, making it harder for them to change, especially among the well-intentioned, psychologists say. Instead, conversations about what people would like to achieve are more likely to result in improvements.
“Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down,” academic and author Richard Boyatzis is quoted as saying in writer Daniel Goleman’s book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.”
Working with colleagues at Cleveland Clinic, Boyatzis put people through a positive, dreams-first interview or a negative, problems-focused one while their brains were scanned. The positive interview elicited activity in reward circuitry and areas for good memories and upbeat feelings – a brain signature of the open hopefulness we feel when embracing an inspiring vision. In contrast, the negative interview activated brain circuitry for anxiety, the same areas that activate when we feel sad and worried. In the latter state, the anxiety and defensiveness elicited make it more difficult to focus on the possibilities for improvement.
Of course a manager needs to help people face what’s not working. As Boyatzis put it, “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”
… This brain circuitry—vital for working toward our goals—runs on dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, along with endogenous opioids like endorphins, the “runner’s high” neurotransmitters. This chemical brew fuels drive and tags it with satisfying dollops of pleasure. That may be why maintaining a positive view pays off for performance, as Frederickson’s research has found: it energizes us, lets us focus better, be more flexible in our thinking, and connect effectively with the people around us.
Managers and coaches can keep this in mind. Boyatzis makes the case that understanding a person’s dreams can open a conversation about what it would take to fulfill those hopes. And that can lead to concrete learning goals. Often those goals are improving capacities like conscientiousness, listening, collaboration and the like—which can yield better performance.