Fight, flight, or fright? Don't let the performance review spook you.

October 31, 2019 Lynne Levy

3-minute read

For organizations that evaluate performance on a yearly basis, performance review season can be scarier than Halloween.

I remember my last performance review was in December 2012. Although it was a few days before Christmas, I was fixated on the upcoming review. I was ready for a promotion. The organization was going through extensive changes. Uncertainty permeated every discussion at work. Even my children noticed that my mind seemed to be elsewhere when I forgot to put flour in the sugar cookies.

There is something anxiety-provoking about sitting in an office as your manager sits behind their desk telling you about what you have and have not achieved over the last twelve months.

Extensive evidence shows significant negative effects of performance reviews on employees, including reduced engagement and performance and increased stress and anxiety.

Why does the performance review cause such fear and stress for everyone involved? Why does it cause sleepless nights, anxiety, and disengagement?

It’s simple. Performance reviews trigger a “fight or flight” response – like being chased by a ghost on Halloween.

Fight or flight response

Constructive criticism causes parts of our brain to shut off because we think we are under attack. Our body and mind turn defensive, causing a fight or flight reaction that makes it difficult to think clearly. This is the same reaction our ancestors had thousands of years ago running away from predators. So when we receive feedback, we have the same reaction as if a lion is chasing us.

Even giving feedback is challenging. Research from the NeuroLeadership Institute found that giving feedback causes both an increased heart rate and anxiety.

Annual review bias

When feedback is given once a year, it almost always provides a limited point of view. It's hard to be accurate when various biases influence our behavior at work. For example, recency bias is when a manager only focuses on an employee's most recent successes and failures, and it can cause a review to be inaccurate.

Another bias that can impact performance reviews is the idiosyncratic rater bias. When managers evaluate skills that are not their strengths, they tend to rate those more positively. And when they evaluate skills that are their strengths, they tend to rate those more negatively. In other words, managers evaluate employees based on their personal strengths and weaknesses. In fact, one of the largest studies on feedback found that more than half of the variance associated with ratings had to do with idiosyncratic rater bias.

Here’s the bottom line: Annual performance reviews can be cloaked like a costume, with the full picture of an employee’s performance completely hidden.

How can performance reviews and feedback become less threatening? Organizations need to move a culture of continuous performance management, which involves:

The performance review process doesn’t have to be scary if we make it a growth opportunity for employees. The most effective way to do this is to evolve to a culture of continuous performance development.

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About the Author

Lynne Levy

Lynne Levy is a Workhuman evangelist who lives and breathes helping organizations build cultures that bring out the best in the employees. Her mantra is “do what you love, love what you do.”

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