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The old adage: “no news is good news” means that if we hear nothing then nothing is wrong. In other words silence is good. There is a deep assumption that people only share with others the details of events that conflict with their expectations: where something has failed, disappointed; broken; shocked or at the very least surprised them. If things are going as expected or hoped then there is, it is assumed, nothing to report that would interest anyone else.

The idea that only negative stories are of interest has led our news media to be heavily skewed towards tales of doom and gloom and it has been argued, in fact, that “good news is no news”. In spite of the world being happier, healthier and more prosperous than ever before, we are bombarded with the stories of war, disease and criminality gathered from around the globe to fill up our TV News schedule. Good news stories are too often relegated to “The One Show” or other light entertainment programmes: they are treated as less important.

This bias is no surprise. Humans are programmed to attend to threats; this helps us either avoid or deal with the threat and keep ourselves safe. We are also hard wired to attend to whatever is new. From babies we notice when a new toy is introduced, or a new sound is heard and our attention is re-awakened. This helps guide our learning through exploration of our environment. New things are not necessarily bad; but they are those things that surprise us as different to the norm.

The problem is, our preference to treat good news as less worthy of attention results in a fundamental weakness to how we manage people’s performance. “Giving feedback” is usually seen as synonymous with giving negative feedback. After all, if the person is doing well or doing what you expect them to do then what is there you can actually say that would be of any interest.

The difficulty here is that if feedback is either not given at all, or only given when there is something negative then the overall impact, for the receiver, is to feel demoralised, discouraged and to lose trust with the feedback giver. With children, we can see disruptive behaviours increasing if these are the only behaviours that are noticed and rewarded with the parent’s attention. More generally, through a process of “learned helplessness”, people stop exploring and trying to learn or improve if their efforts only result in further negative responses; in other words they become depressed.

Within the workplace, managers must turn this core bias on its head. The truth is that “no news is most definitely bad news” for people if you want them to feel motivated and to grow. Performance management feedback cannot simply consist of the main dramatic headlines: the things that have gone wrong. Feedback must principally focus on developing a person’s sense of worth and their self-efficacy – their belief that they can do well. And this means constantly reinforcing good performance by noticing, discussing and planning how to repeat and extend the successful behaviours. It is assumed that when someone does something right they will know this and understand why and therefore do this again. However, through a combined lack of self-awareness and recognition from others; it is just as likely that good behaviours will ultimately be abandoned. Furthermore, when the manager really does need to deliver some bad news; the receiver is more likely to fixate on this and potentially experience a deterioration in performance and motivation.

When sharing feedback, make it:

● Regular

● Principally focussed on what went right and how to do this again

● Only offer negative feedback as an additional way to build on past success.

As we approach the end of the calendar year, and perhaps, the business year, there is for many a sense of dread as we contemplate the prospect of annual performance appraisals. As an integral part of an organisation’s performance management system, the appraisal has been a key tool used to motivate people. However, if anything it often achieves the opposite.
Performance Management (PM) has had an increasingly negative press over recent years. This is a pity as we genuinely need it: people want to feel they are progressing in a positive direction and that they are doing the right things to stay on track in their careers; and companies want to attract, keep and develop their talent to achieve their vision. Aon Hewitt tell us the companies with the highest levels of employee engagement are also those with the most effective PM processes, and that PM is a direct driver of engagement.

Twenty years ago I was part of a mini-industry designing complex PM processes with annual timetables anchored to the business planning cycle and decisions about pay. A central goal was to ensure a structured and standardised approach that would enable people to be rewarded fairly. The assumption was that people would be motivated to develop in order to achieve these rewards. As an add-on feature, PM processes gave support in how to achieve this development through ongoing feedback and coaching.

However, our faith in such processes is falling away. The link between pay and motivation is not nearly as strong as we had assumed. It seems it’s not the financial reward that matters but the quality ongoing support and involvement of a line manager in helping someone improve that really counts. This is what drives loyalty and motivation and which underpins the development of personal performance. Sadly, linking PM to pay, only serves to undermine the more important benefits.

As a result many large organisations are shifting their focus; cutting loose the decisions about reward and using PM first and foremost as a vehicle to help people develop. Obviously people still need a sense that their salary is competitive and calculated in a fair and transparent way. However, there are other ways to deliver that without linking it directly to the achievement of annual performance objectives.

There are major problems in using PM for reward:

1) It creates mind-numbing bureaucracy. Deloitte estimated that 2 million hours were spent per annum largely by their managers trying to agree ratings. HR can become pre-occupied with processes that prove how ratings and reward decisions were derived rather than focusing on what will actually make the greatest difference to performance and motivation.

2) It focuses on the past. There is a demand for evidence of what people have DONE to justify reward decisions. Therefore PM looks backward with a view to analysing and assessing the value of past performance. This does not encourage open and honest conversation about what and how to improve.

3) It comes too late. Due to the above two points, PM activities become loaded towards the end of the year. By this time the objectives established the year before are often irrelevant as the organisational world has moved on. The more useful performance conversations will need to have taken place in the moment, throughout the year, to keep pace with change.

4) It encourages the wrong behaviours. Offering financial reward based on an individual’s performance, encourages self-serving behaviours, rather than doing what is best for the long term success of the team. It also encourages people to focus on the activities they can measure and prove rather than those that genuinely add value.

By decoupling decisions about pay, organisations can unleash the true potential of Performance Management. In practice this means ensuring that PM is no longer associated with the dreaded Annual Appraisal. Rather it is all about what happens along the way. This means:

● Building trust through regular positive and informal interaction

● Learning from successes in order to develop confidence

● Quality coaching conversations with managers to find ways to improve

● Real-time feedback after key events and as a day-to-day norm

● Honest interpretation of multiple and diverse feedback

● A focus on what is needed today and tomorrow rather than what has been done before

● Embracing a team ethos and seeing success as a joint endeavour Less Inclusive?

This comes with risks. By truly focusing on managers’ conversations with their team members rather than a bureaucratic process we are forced to acknowledge the reality that success is dependent on management skill and motivation. Unfortunately, managers, like all of us, are subject to bias. In fact, the more informal the process, the greater the risk of bias with the result that Performance Management becomes less inclusive over time. We know that managers will naturally have more frequent interactions with those people they feel more comfortable with and whom they identify with due to homophily. This immediately creates more frequent and possibly richer opportunities for certain team members to gain developmental support and can become a relative barrier for others. As this type of bias is largely unconscious, new style performance management needs to work hard to give managers strategies to ensure the same opportunities to learn and grow are extended to everyone and that everyone feels engaged and enabled.

At its most basic level, Performance Management is about establishing a goal and setting people off in the direction of that goal. Like a paper aeroplane, we might launch it in a particular direction to reach a desired destination. However, once launched there is nothing further we can do to influence its course. We must simply sit back and wait to see if it succeeds or fails.

This is what old style Performance Management was like. We would set people off with the best of intentions but then sit back and watch events unfold. Like digging up the black box flight recorder after the plane had crashed, we would wait until the end of the year to see if they had succeeded or failed and evaluate this through the annual review. However, it was too late to stop the plane crashing in the first place with costly consequences.

Of course, what the pilot really needs to ensure a successful flight is live information and this comes in the form of the cockpit flight instruments. The pilot needs to know:

• Are we on the right track?

• Are we doing the right things to stay on track?

• Are there any changes we need to take account of that might interfere?

They need constant feedback to guide and support them in order to get the best result no matter what they encounter en route. The pilot cannot rely on their own senses; in bad weather important visual cues are missing and the pilot can misinterpret other physical sensations. As a result they can emerge from a cloud and unexpectedly find themselves flying upside down. The pilot needs independent reliable information to help them and they must learn to trust what these instruments are telling them.

Importantly, the cockpit instruments are designed to make important information readily available, but feedback isn’t forced on the pilot unless there is a genuine emergency. Care is taken not to distract the pilot with too many threatening messages. The information provided is mostly positive or at least neutral in nature, reassuring the pilot there are doing OK or at least enabling the pilot to make minor adjustments before things go badly off course.

In spite of all the technology, the pilot is in charge of their own plane. The computers and instruments can only facilitate and support. It is crucial that the pilot is fully engaged in the flight and able to assume control the moment something complex or unexpected arises.

Having said that a good pilot will be encouraged to question and cross check their assumptions and decisions by consulting a range of information. Like all people, pilots can be blinded by bias, e.g. taking an overly optimistic view of the risks they face; being influenced by preconceptions of a situation. However, each piece of data on its own might be misleading; an holistic view is required.

Taking these lessons on board, successful Performance Management needs to:

Put the pilot in control: We know that the greater the level of involvement from employees the more positive the outcome from feedback discussions. They should believe they are in charge of their own plane and are taking the lead in terms of soliciting and interpreting feedback.

Frequent and informal: In work we know that more frequent contact creates a stronger relationship of trust. Just as the pilot must trust their instruments in order to gain the greatest benefit, so does the employee need to trust their manager. Research shows that the better the relationship, the greater the trust and the more positive the outcomes regardless of whether feedback is favourable or critical.

Real-time: Line managers can help individuals identify immediate opportunities for feedback. Particularly after key testing events; the sooner the feedback the better. The line manager should also create opportunities to review and consider this feedback as frequently as possible so that constant adjustments can be made.

Reliable holistic view: The manager should assist the employee in gathering feedback from a number of sources in order to compare perspectives, and assist the employee in interpreting these perspectives, bearing in mind the bias any one source of feedback may have been subject to.

Positive focus: Too often, line managers remain silent until there is a serious problem at which point what the employee hears are threatening sirens and alarms meaning the information is seen as a negative experience. Feedback should, first and foremost, be about what went right, building a belief in the ability to do well and helping the employee to make use of their strengths.

Warns when appropriate: The above point doesn’t mean being soft. The manager will need to vigorously help the employee build on their successes. In addition, when something is genuinely of concern; it should be clearly and confidently shared so that the employee can take action. It is much easier to deliver negative feedback if this is done within the context of constant positive dialogue.

Manages risks around Inclusion: The cockpit has no favourites. The data is equally available to all who choose to consult it. In work managers must work hard to overcome any natural bias towards certain people. We know that manager will have more frequent positive interaction with people they most identify with. To be inclusive they must be alert to how this differentiates the quality of the development support they give to particular individuals. However, more than this, they must proactively build trust with those individuals who might not assume to come looking for their input.

It is unlikely that many of us, whichever way we voted, really expected the ‘leave’ camp to come out ahead. There was a sense of disbelief amongst everyone, whichever side of the fence they fell. The unexpected result has suddenly imposed a significant change on us all.

In the face of this unprecedented change, we will experience a range of emotions before we are able to accept the new world and move forward positively. The triggers for these emotions are basic: they are essentially a physiological reaction to threat. The fear or anger we feel is a direct result of increased brain activity, and will be felt through increased blood pressure, a higher pulse rate or a desire to punch the desk. It is the body’s way of coping with threats and a fear of failure. We fear not being able to cope with the new world and we react defensively.

It is important to bear in mind that we will all react in different ways to the changes ahead and we will all find personal strategies to deal with what is happening. If you want to know how people are feeling about the change, just listen to their words…

• “This is ridiculous. It can’t be happening…”

We will all feel some kind of shock… even those who voted to leave. It is normal to go through a period of disbelief or confusion. A fear of the unknown will make it harder to think clearly and we could find ourselves pre-occupied and unable to focus on everyday life. At this stage, we will need time to adjust, and simple, clear information to help us to grasp what is actually happening.

• “This is wrong. There must be a mistake…”

In response we shift towards denial and refuse to accept the reality of the change. For the referendum this might mean challenging the legality of the outcome or proposing options for over-turning the decision. Many of us will now be thinking that the decision will be reversed, but according to senior government figures, it won’t. It is natural for us to search for angles that take the pain away before we are able to accept and deal with the reality of a change.

• “How did the government allow this to happen?”

We need reasons why this has happened. When it becomes increasingly clear that change is a reality, we may become preoccupied with thoughts of “if only….” revisiting and refining our understanding of how it happened. It can be tempting to lay blame on others and find scapegoats. It is important to recognise that there is a collective responsibility both positive and negative that may have led to the outcome. And that, indeed, some factors may have been outside our control and some choices only clarified by hindsight.

• “It is what it is. We need to make the best of the situation…”

No-one will want to stay in a state of uncertainty and conflict for ever. When ready we will begin to explore new possibilities and a vision of how the future could be optimised; new relationships with Europe; new ways for politicians to connect with their own people. We will become impatient for the pain to be over and shift towards looking to the future.

• “It’s a great opportunity. Let’s get on with it…”

Ultimately people will focus on making the new situation a reality and will absorb or embrace it as the new “normal”. Revisiting resentment and blame will feel counterproductive and, as we become more familiar with the new situation, there will be far less uncertainty and anxiety driving our responses. Ultimately, the whole experience will give greater context to other major changes – such as a new prime minister or new ways of working.

Whether it is weeks from now, months or perhaps longer, we should all look forward to the point where the future has become the past. Once there we will no doubt find the reality to be far less frightening than it currently seems. Right now, we might still be reeling from the shock of unexpected change and fearful of the unknown, but we will adapt. The world is dynamic and no outcome would have resulted in a perpetual status quo. We react, learn and evolve.

To read more of Laura Haycock's blogs, click here.

Warning!! This article explores how the psychology behind cognitive bias can help us weigh up the rights and wrongs of the Referendum arguments. The result may be more confusion and uncertainty. I apologise for that. Once you start to unravel the murky processes by which we make sense of the world you come to realise what emotional irrational beings we truly are.

However, fear not! The less confident you are of your ability to be objective, the chances are the more objective your decisions will actually be. Uncertainty prompts us to re-examine our assumptions and be open to new evidence. Perversely it is the people who are still undecided that we should probably have most faith in; assuming they are eventually able to make up their minds!

In this week’s Telegraph Daniel Kahneman warns of the risk in allowing ‘heart’ to rule over ‘head’ in the upcoming EU Referendum. Kahneman sees the Brexit campaign as being particularly at risk of emotionally biased judgments that might prove costly. However, I respectfully challenge Kahneman’s assessment and explore the world of cognitive bias to reveal how none of us, whether Remain or Brexit, can be certain we are right.

In the EU referendum we are tasked with making a crucially important decision that carries significant potential risks. We are asked to do so even though few of us understand macroeconomics, have little understanding of the true structure and processes of the EU and cannot fully predict the pressures and priorities of the future. To decide we have to listen to the views of experts, friends and family, and the community at large and weigh up what is authentic and important to us as individuals. Emotion and bias are an inevitable part of what we decide to vote for.

Indeed being biased is part of being human. Our decision making, our beliefs, our motivations and emotions are all intertwined. Emotional reactions are fast and subconscious. Our logical brain has to play catch-up. But as Kahneman explains, our logical brain is lazy. Rather than running objective scientific analysis, it is too prone to look for logical reasons that justify the emotional reaction that is already there. As a result the decisions we make can often ignore the facts and information put before us i.e. they show cognitive bias.

Wikepedia lists over 170 different sources of cognitive bias. I have identified 5 general groups that could impact our referendum decisions.

Need for Clarity

First and foremost humans don’t like to feel confused. We are programmed to feel anxious if things don’t make sense and this motivates us to find clarity and answers where reality might be more ambiguous. As a consequence:

● we artificially exaggerate the difference between alternative options in order to create more distinction between them. Each side tries to paint themselves as all good and the alternative all bad although most of us recognize that either outcome brings costs and benefits. This leads the groups to become polarized.

● we don’t favour options where we sense the outcome is unknown or ambiguous. We tend to assume that the status quo is better. This preference works against Brexit which, to many, seems like a shot in the dark. However, we are also reminded of the risk that the EU could go in directions we can’t anticipate.

Need to be Right

We feel much happier if we believe our views are true and correct. It helps us feel good about ourselves if we can trust in our own logic and view of the world. This creates an unhelpful impetus to prove that we are indeed right:

● we actively look for and pay special attention to evidence that proves our initial theories but neglect to explore alternatives to the same degree. Modern media feeds this by allowing us to be selective of the news and commentary we read.

● however, even where new evidence is presented we maintain our views and fail to sufficiently revise them. To do otherwise would be to let chaos back in and admit that we were wrong before. How many of us are guilty of tuning out when someone starts to challenge our established beliefs.

● whatever the final outcome, we tend to assert that we always knew it would end that way; if the outcome is a positive one then whatever we did in the first place must have been the right thing to do; if the outcome is negative then it’s obvious that someone else was to blame. So don’t worry; everyone’s a winner! Your brain will make sure of that.

Need to Belong

We are by nature tribal animals and strongly driven by a need to feel accepted within a group that is distinct from other groups. But loyalties, identity and pressures of consensus are powerful forces that can bend our logic.

● we start to perceive things differently in tune with others in the group we choose. When a consensus builds it is hard for individuals to go against the tide. Group members not only feel pressure to openly agree with one another they actually do start to think the same way which strengthens their belief that they must be right.

● in spite of this, you will view your group as more rational and capable of considering a point from all sides; whereas you will see the alternative group as sharing the exact same faulty thinking as each other and being woefully subject to bias. The press in particular seems to expect that a political group share uniform views and they home in on any dissent as a sign of weakness. However, dissent is a sign of healthy thinking.

● we also want to be on the side of our friends and not of our perceived opponents. The EU referendum cuts across party politics and yet there is unease at sharing a platform with an individual you dislike or a party you normally try to dissociate yourself from; even though you might want similar outcomes. It takes a brave Corbynite to stand alongside Nigel Farage.

● critically we are being challenged to define which group we do belong to: cosy middle England; the diverse legacy of a British Commonwealth; or a trans-European melting pot. The reality might be all 3 but forces pull our loyalties in particular directions that are then embodied in preferential trade agreements or deals on free movement. Your own group identity will undoubtedly shape your attitudes to the debate.

Reward versus Risk

When choosing between options, we must make complex judgments between the probability of reward against the potential risk of losses. Our ability to weigh up the significance of these is often flawed and leads us to make decisions that do not deliver the best utility in the long term.

● we have a much stronger preference for options that will make life better now rather than ones that will help us further down the line; it is hard for us to imagine the future and the benefits of long term options can feel too abstract and remote to take a gamble on. Brexit has a tough job convincing people that change will be worth the short-term pain for something better in long term.

● if we have already invested a lot in an idea or project, we are more inclined to carry on investing in it regardless of how successful that investment is. We find it hard to abandon our earlier investment and walk away. The EU has been an enormous investment which our friends and neighbours across the continent have put their life savings into too. How hard would it be for us to sell out now even if that was the right thing to do?

● if we consider the possible outcomes to be relatively positive we will act in a way that is risk averse. However, if we perceive the possible outcomes to be relatively negative we will act more boldly and take a greater risk in order to avoid those negative consequences. If this is true perhaps the Remain camp should be emphasizing a generally positive picture of the future to lure people into preserving the status quo, and allowing Brexit to focus on prophecies of doom.

Limits in Attention and Memory

Even if we try to control all these biases, our brains have limited ability to perceive, process and remember information. We have therefore evolved to pay attention to and remember whatever information is deemed to be most important.

● Negative information that signals risks will be regarded as more important than good news and you will give it more salience in your decision making. There is a reason why everyone is trying to scare us (and ignoring the last point above).

● We can get so focussed on one issue that we regard as important that we lose sight of a multitude of other issues that collectively carry as much weight. This issue might well be one that you have anchored your opinions to from the outset. The central issue for you might be financial wealth; or democratic control. We don’t like it when people confuse us by talking about farming subsidies or the NHS or mobile phone tarrifs. So more likely than not we tune those messages out and hang on to the one thing that stood out from the start.

● if we hear something often enough we start to believe it as fact. There is an illusion of truth simply because it sounds familiar. Politicians need not worry too much about proving their statistics. They just need to keep repeating them.

Managing Bias

One thing is for certain; the more you know about how you think, the less you think you know about anything.

We have a huge blind spot to our own biases. In spite of all the evidence of the flaws in our decision-making, we continue to fool ourselves that it is only other people who are subjective. In fact, the more you pride yourself on your track record of making morally balanced judgments, the greater the risk of you being biased in the future. You should always continue to question your own thinking.

Of course, you might be wise to the ways that others try to influence you and attempt to maintain a cynical attitude to their arguments. Sadly, again, this could put you at greater risk of bias. Sensing that others are trying to control or coerce you may provoke a subconscious reaction to do the direct opposite and exercise your sense of freedom.

Whilst you teeter on the fence a little longer, gathering views and opinions, a key challenge is which experts to trust. We have good reason to question the motives of business leaders and politicians. However, if we discount everyone’s views then what are we left with?

Anyone want to flip a coin?

To read more of Laura Haycock's blogs, click here.

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