7 Steps for Mindful Performance Reviews

BL00 - Mindful Performance Reviews-Max-Quality

By Bridgette Morehouse

How well companies can create cultures of connection is the new superpower. In our future of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, the power of human connection will become increasingly evident. The multiplier effect of workplace wellbeing, inclusivity, and belongingness is already well documented. And yet…

The realities of work today are straining our ability to connect in meaningful ways. So many of us feel the weight of the work that is needed to address legacies of collective trauma and systemic exclusion. We live in a world with a surging epidemic of loneliness. Social media isolates. Politics polarize. And of course, we have the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantines, and virtual work. It is a lot. 

It becomes plain to see how opportunities for connection become an oasis in the desert of today’s workplaces. As social creatures, we thirst for authentic connection.

Every interaction is an opportunity to increase connection. Every email, every phone call, every Zoom call. Interactions, when we feel safe with the other person, are easy opportunities. Interactions that carry an edge of nervousness or anxiety are rich practice grounds. Shifting our focus to create more connection can powerfully change these interactions.

Feedback Discussions – An Opportunity for Connection

Feedback at work is normal and abundant, however, the annual performance review process creates an artificial, formalized process that can easily create anxiety – can we reimagine this process as one that creates connection?

In normal performance conversations, whether you are giving feedback or receiving it, our “fight or flight” systems are triggered. Performance discussions, particularly when combined with decisions about compensation or promotability, can cause worry about status, perceptions of competence, likeability, and fairness. Our biology takes over. It is unconscious and it is fast. 

Higher-order skills like creativity, compassion, and curiosity become more difficult to access. Self-protective behaviors like positioning, black-and-white thinking, and confrontation become more natural. Even people with high emotional intelligence; high emotional self-awareness and emotional self-management, find performance conversations taxing.  

Companies are taking notice, and many are changing their systems. In fact, many Fortune 500 companies have ditched the formal performance evaluation process altogether. And many others are reconsidering their purpose and designing them to be more employee-friendly. While this is certainly a trend, most of us still work at companies that have a traditional evaluation and appraisal process. 

The annual performance review process is hard in a normal year. And 2020 has been anything but a normal year. Uncertainty about roles, changing work priorities, added workload in families with children in virtual school, financial strain, and worry about job security, will add to the normal anxiety felt during this time. 

How might we reconsider performance reviews as an opportunity to mindfully create deeper connections?

Whether you are preparing to give feedback or receive feedback, there are a few steps you can take to approach these conversations more mindfully.

Awareness of Heart: 

1. Meet as Humans - Take a few minutes to sit with the idea that the person you will be meeting is more than the role you see them in at work. They are a fully dimensional human, with a rich, complex life, just like you. Consider a “Just Like Me” practice like this one by Mirabai Bush.

2. Meet with Compassion - Just like you, everyone is having an unusually taxing year in 2020. Try a Tonglen practice like this one to help set an intention of meeting the other person with compassion.

Awareness of Mind:

3. Thoughts About the Meeting - Consider that the purpose of the meeting is for you to be of benefit. Compassionately question if you may have any intentions that are at odds with this approach. If you find a motive other than an intention to be of benefit, or if thinking about the other person elicits any other emotions in you, take some time to examine it.  What is the intention? Where is it coming from? What is driving it? Determine if you might soften into a state of compassion and connection. Try applying Tara Brach’s RAIN of self-compassion.

4. Thoughts About the Other Person - Work from an assumption that people are good, fair, and honest, and that the intent behind their actions is positive. People are doing the best they can, with the information, tools, and resources they have. Challenge yourself to set aside your own judgments and preconceived notions. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

Awareness of Body: 

5. The Role of The Nervous System – Our bodies are tuned to minimize danger and maximize reward. The brain decides whether a situation is safe or threatening. Most of this decision-making is unconscious and it happens extremely fast. Before we are even aware of it, our brain has determined if a situation constitutes a threat or a reward and our autonomic nervous system has mobilized for protection or for connection.

6. Your Default Mode - Take a moment to review the three states of the nervous system’s automatic responses. Consider your personal experience. Where do you feel most at home? Do you tend to lean more toward protection or connection? Do you usually meet the world with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to engage? Or do you feel you are more often on guard? Can you recall times when your nervous system moved you into another response? Was the move conscious or unconscious? What happened to cause that shift? Bring curiosity and self-compassion to this exercise. Recognize none of these states are wrong, they just are. Approach your examination with curiosity, and then compassion, and then wonder for your body's amazing ability to adapt, ensuring your protection and survival.

7. The Other Person’s Default Mode - To practice shifting to another’s perspective, think about a time when a child did not listen to you. Try not to think of them as being defiant, but as not yet being able to regulate their nervous system response. Can you imagine that maybe they had been overwhelmed; swept away into a state of numbing, disconnection, or withdrawal? Recall, this is a self-protective state that they were likely unaware of and unable to control. Consider that it may have had nothing to do with you or your interaction. Can you find a soft space of compassion for them when seeing their behaviors through this lens?

Learning to recognize how these protective patterns show up helps us increase our self-awareness, and we may begin to be moved to offer connection rather than responding from our own default patterns.

Without intentional thought, the normal performance discussion is primed to be anxiety-inducing at best and can strain relationships and reinforce distancing power hierarchies at worst.  As you approach your conversations this year, follow the steps above, and access the free flipbook here. Start with a mindful intention to create connection and be of service. Then enter the conversation with awareness of heart, mind, and body.  I hope these steps help you approach these conversations with an open heart, from a state of compassion and love, and that these steps help create connection in a world that desperately needs more. 

Bridgette Morehouse is Founder and CEO of Lead Human. Through leadership development and coaching, Lead Human’s focus is helping leaders Connect, Adapt, and Inspire in today’s complex, changing world. Bridgette is an experienced global executive with a track record of innovation in several Fortune 20 companies. Through her programs, thousands of leaders around the globe have been introduced to the benefits of mindfulness. She is a Certified Workplace Mindfulness Facilitator by Mindful Leader and a Meditate Together volunteer facilitator.

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1 comment

David Alecock

Just want to say that I enjoyed the wisdom of this post immensely. As we come to terms with the "new normal" after COVID, leaders will be faced with crucial tasks such as reviews. I foresee that this routine task will be very stressful as we return to some semblance of normalcy/before. Not sure where I stole it from, but have always been a fan of the "stop, start, continue" mode of review. In deft hands, and with your wisdom, maybe leaders can utilize these moments, as you say, as an opportunity for connection--and encouragement. To do less will be of little use to employer or employee. We can hope.

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