Effective Evaluations: Motivating the Brain for Growth

From report cards to performance reviews, we get a lot of feedback throughout our lives.  Some feedback leaves us feeling on top of the world, some leaves us ready to pack our bags and move on.  Interestingly, it is not necessarily the content of the evaluation that makes us feel that way, but they way that it is delivered.

Our brains are hard-wired to want to succeed.  Our brain actually gets pretty powerful neurochemical reward when we feel like we have worked hard to accomplished a goal. The key to effective evaluations is understanding how to set the stage to enable that reward system to work.

First, let’s look at what we know about feedback and motivation.

Carol Dweck turned our understanding of effective feedback upside down with her research studies that demonstrate the benefit of fostering a growth mindset.  In her book, Mindset, she makes the case that praising someone’s ability (ex., “You are so smart!”) can actually undermine motivation.  Instead, she explains, feedback should emphasize the process of learning and improving (ex. “Your hard work really paid off on that project.  What did you do to make it go so well?”).  By attributing success to effort rather than innate qualities, we increase motivation to improve quality in the future.

Daniel Pink further challenged traditional beliefs about motivation with his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In the book, Pink draws on scientific research to show that humans are inspired more by intrinsic motivators such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose than by extrinsic motivators like praise, grades, and money.  Why?  Because those intrinsic rewards lead to stronger neurochemical gifts for our brain.

Again, our brains are wired to want to succeed.  We just don’t always know how.  Feedback should be kind of a feeding frenzy for the brain because, if done effectively, it opens up the opportunity for all types of intrinsic rewards and growth.  Unfortunately, this opportunity is often wasted because our natural instinct is to praise ability and reward with extrinsic rewards. The result?  We undermine that drive to succeed

For the rest of this blog, I will draws on the lens of the Resilient Mindset Model todemonstrate how to mindfully set the stage for effective evaluation.  For background information about the model, please see http://centerforresilientleadership.com/uncategorized/the-resilient-mindset-model-overview/.

The Four Ss

Dweck’s Growth Mindset can be hard for us to get our minds around because the fixed mindset in so ingrained.  Using the Four Ss as a framework for the evaluation forces us to think in growth mindset mode.  By consciously addressing each of the Four Ss, we are structuring opportunity for growth end encouraging resilient brain pathways because the brain processes information more easily when given a consistent structure.

Self: What are the strengths that we want to see continue?  What are the areas that you want to develop?

Situation: What are the challenges that were handled well?  What about those that could have used some work?

Strategies: What are the strategies that were most effective?  Which strategies were not so effective?  What are others that might have worked better?

Supports: Were supports used effectively?  How can we draw on resources in a more effective way?


Respect, equity, alliances, control, territory, and similarity. These are the threats and rewards to the brain.

When we are going to be evaluated, our brains are primed for “grasshopper mode” because of the primary social threats.  Evaluations, by definition, set up the potential to threaten our brains, which leads to short-term thinking and neurochemical releases.  Any way that an evaluator can mitigate those threats increases the potential for a productive feedback session.  Effective evaluations actively consider how to minimize threat to the grasshopper and how to maximize the potential for intrinsic rewards.

Recently, I spoke to a friend who was waiting to meet with her supervisor for her annual review.  She really had no idea whether she was going to get a raise or get fired.  Turns out, she got a pretty nice bonus, but she probably got very little productivity out of the meeting because her of the stress leading up to it.  She was so focused on the external threat that it was nearly impossible to draw on the intrinsic reward.

Mindfulness: Be the Dragonfly

This isn’t magic–anyone can do it.  The key is to be aware and consciously make mindful choices.  Throughout the entire evaluation process, be the dragonfly.  Whether preparing for the evaluation, doing the evaluation or planning a follow-up, be mindful of how the way you are delivering feedback is effecting the brain.  Whether you are a parent, coach, teacher or high-level manager, active awareness of REACTS and the use of the Four Ss as a framework should lead to more productive feedback sessions.



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