Giving effective feedback to an underperforming team member is a key skill for any manager and yet it is still frequently misunderstood.  The latest research in neuroscience is shedding some light on how we can improve the impact of our feedback and turn performance around.

Feedback is very similar to motivation in that it is very individual.   Some people like their feedback frank and to the point others need a more encouraging approach or else they will become overwhelmed with a cocktail of nasty neurochemicals.  Some people only need a quiet word while others need to have the consequences of not changing laid out in no uncertain terms.  In fact some people need to go through the disciplinary procedure before they understand that there is a need to change.

Back to basics
There is a lot more going on at an unconscious level and that can make a huge difference to the impact your feedback will have, but there is no harm in being reminded about the basics of delivering effective feedback when expectations or standards are not being met:

1 – Be prompt; if feedback needs to be given do it as soon as possible so it is relevant and the underperformance is still fresh in mind.
2 – Be clear and concise about what you want to say;
            – Clearly state the performance that is below standard – be very specific and factual.
            – Explain the impact it is having on the business.
            – Describe the desired results you want – again be very specific.
3 – Focus on the performance or behaviour – not the person or personality; report what you are seeing, hearing or feeling and avoid unhelpful personal judgements like “you are lazy” or ambiguous statements like “your performance is not good enough”.
4 – Own the feedback; use ‘I’ statements to show that this is about your own perceptions, impressions and what you think.

Latest thinking
Whilst most people crave feedback they hate criticism.  This is very understandable, especially when you take the latest neuroscience research into consideration.  In his excellent book ‘Your Brain at Work’ David Rock explains his SCARF model which summarises the 5 primary threats that drive our brains nuts.  A ‘Primary Threat’ activates our reptilian brain and injects a cocktail of neurochemicals like Adrenalin, Cortisol and Norepinephrine into our system and makes us want to fight or run away because it’s as if our survival is at stake.  In this ‘Away From’ state the brain loses its ability to think creatively because, it zooms into a search for details of when similar emotions were triggered and this causes accidental and false connections to previous upsets which only make matters worse.  Within seconds of a primary threat being activated we become defensive, problem oriented and closed to new ideas.  This is not a useful state to receive feedback in.

On the other hand, if the 5 primary threats are reduced we experience a ‘Reward Response’ which produces a warm glow from the ‘feel-good’ neurochemicals like Serotonin and Dopamine.  This helps the brain make more neural connections and we become more open to new ideas, it also increases our creativity so we can find more positive solutions.

Here is a very brief summary of the SCARF model in the context of giving feedback:
Status – if our status is threatened, the brain feels like it is about to be hit with a stick.  Knowing we are about to receive feedback from a boss almost always triggers a drop in status because we fear the worst.
Certainty – The brain craves certainty.  If things become uncertain it thinks there is a huge risk that something dangerous may happen, it’s like having an incomplete map to an important destination.  If we are about to receive feedback on our performance, it means that something will probably have to change and that creates uncertainty which becomes a threat.
Autonomy – The brain needs to have choice.  No choice means we lose control and our ability to influence outcomes, this triggers a threat response.  It’s interesting to note that in studies even the illusion (or perception) of choice can dampen this response quite significantly.
Relatedness – The brain is continuously making judgements about who is a ‘friend or foe’.  It’s a very primitive function from millions of years ago when resources were scarce and people only lived to an average of 20.  As soon as our line manager begins to address underperformance they become a foe who could threaten our survival.
Fairness – The science shows that when the brain perceives something as unfair it stimulates the same part of the brain as when we taste something disgusting.   Feelings of unfairness are often created by misreading someone’s intent.  If the threats above are activated, it is highly likely that the intentions of the manager providing the feedback will be misread!

If you want to influence a change in performance with an underperforming member of your team, it is worth considering the impact that the SCARF model can have and how you can reduce the threat responses.  If you are successful, they will be more open to feedback because their brain is not wreaking havoc, which means they can actually hear and accept what you are saying.

A highly skilled manager will also exercise the self-awareness required to notice their own threat responses and triggers in order to manage them.   We all have our individual foibles, motivations and levels of stress and a good manager will take these things into consideration when giving feedback, tailoring it to the person’s state of mind. 

Using a SCARF approach
First consider Autonomy.  Ask for permission to give the feedback.  This may seem a bit odd but the very fact that they have a choice in the matter massively reduces the threat response.  If they decline just ask them when it would be more suitable (without letting them fob you off completely).  It is a very subtle but effective technique.

The other elements of the model can also be addressed and here are some tips you may want to consider:

– Raise their status by acknowledging what they do well, or reduce your own status by mentioning a time when you made a mistake or had difficulty, what you learned from it and how you overcame it.

– Create some certainty by clarifying what you want and mapping out a review process, ideally with specific times and dates and the support you are prepared to give them to improve.  This will provide a mental map with some milestones for them to use to review their progress.  The review meetings will also encourage a sense of relatedness and the offer of support will reduce any perceptions of unfairness.

– Focus on the desired outcome not the problem.  By doing this you are directing their attention toward the desired results which reduces the threat responses and everything that comes with them.  It also increases their Dopamine levels which helps them be curious, interested and open to ideas.  The goal is to help them to hear, understand and accept the need for a change in their behaviour and performance.  You stand a better chance of achieving this if they are not busy defending themselves. 

Why not give some or all of the above a try next time you need to address a team member’s underperformance!  It would be very interesting to hear what happens.

A note on giving positive feedback:
Despite people always asking for more positive feedback most managers avoid giving it.  This may be because it involves a change in status which can feel like a threat.  When we give someone positive feedback we increase their status and unless we have a strong inner sense of our own status there may be a reluctance to increase the status of others.  How willing are you to give positive feedback?  How regularly do you do it?

I’m very curious to hear your thoughts and opinions on the SCARF approach mentioned above in your comments below.

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen

David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (

If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at [email protected].

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