360 Assessments and Performance Reviews: Priming for Failure

Question: How do you get a better diagnosis from your doctor?
Answer: Give her a bag of candy.

360 Assessments and Performance Reviews: Priming for Failure

In an experiment by Estrada, Isen, and Young1, when doctors were primed to feel positive emotions by being given a gift—a bag of candy—they were more likely to come up with the right diagnosis when reviewing patient files, were more creative in their treatment options, were faster (nearly twice as fast as the control group), and showed less anchoring (hanging on to an initial diagnosis)2. So, if these are the effects of positive priming and a positive culture, what is the effect of priming people in a negative way?

"The moment we ask a question, we begin to create change."

David Cooperrider

If I ask you, "Why aren't you meeting your budget?" it has a different impact than, "What will it take to meet the budget?" It may be subtle yet the difference in how these are received is dramatic. Think about how the first question affected you as compared to the second.

Feedback at Work

What other effects might priming and giving feedback have, especially in the workplace? Commonly, performance reviews, performance development conversations, 360 feedback assessments, and talent review systems ask stakeholders, "What's going well?" and "What are her strengths?" These questions are quickly followed by, "What are her weaknesses?" Or, "What are her opportunities?"

I propose that the moment we ask about weaknesses (or even "opportunities"), we may be priming the stakeholders to identify what's not working. As David Cooperrider, developer of Appreciative Inquiry states above, we create change the moment we ask a question. Therefore, this may be doing more harm than good for the client (or employee). Not because the client can't handle tough feedback, but because priming the stakeholder with "what's not working" may make it more likely that they'll see those unwanted behaviors again in the future.

Most everyone has had a bad experience with feedback discussions. In fact, many organizations are eliminating performance conversations and reviews because of this effect. Further, the data on feedback systems isn't good. A 2012 meta-analysis noted that more than a third of 360 feedback interventions actually led to a decrease in performance and poorly designed 360 systems can increase disengagement, contribute to poor individual and team performance, and create discouragement and frustration3.

Well-Designed Feedback is an Employee Development Strategy

So, how do we create well-designed feedback? Let's look at the questions in our feedback systems and creating a positive feedback culture. The questions we ask are very important and have an immediate impact. So, why are we asking about "opportunities" and "weaknesses?" Perhaps because we haven't given it enough thought or perhaps because we are wired with a negativity bias. What if we skipped "opportunities" completely; never ask about weaknesses? Instead, ask what do you want? Prime the stakeholders to see more of what they do want? Consider asking these questions:

  • What would it look like if she were even more effective?
  • What is one small achievable step she could take to move toward that vision in the next few months?
  • How could they contribute even more to our success? What would you see?
  • Think of her at her best—something that you'd like to see from her even more frequently. When would it happen and where? Describe.

With this, you've nudged the people around her to notice and reinforce what they do want rather than primed them to see more of what they do not. Further, this social support and creating a supportive culture is essential to growth. You can have your feedback process positively prime stakeholders and lead to greater growth and see employee development metrics rise, rather than disappointment and disengagement.

Creating a Feedback Culture

Culture is the invisible fabric that binds organizations together, influencing how people think, feel, and behave at work. One of the most potent tools for shaping organizational culture is the way feedback is given and received. The Shift Positive® Method, as a feedback mechanism, has a profound impact on organizational culture by shifting the narrative from a problem-centric to a solution-centric view. By redefining feedback from highlighting weaknesses to recognizing and building on strengths, the entire organizational mindset begins to evolve. Instead of employees bracing themselves for criticism, they anticipate constructive, actionable insights that they can use to grow and improve.

Furthermore, as Shift Positive teaches stakeholders to move from vague concepts like 'leadership' and 'trust' to specific behaviors, it creates a shared vocabulary across the organization. This shared vocabulary facilitates clearer communication and promotes a more transparent, open dialogue. When individuals within an organization are equipped with the skills to provide feedback based on concrete behaviors, it removes ambiguity and fosters clarity. This, in turn, nurtures trust and collaboration among team members, as they have a clearer understanding of expectations and how to meet them.

Lastly, the ripple effect of implementing Shift Positive 360® goes beyond just the immediate participants. By interviewing multiple stakeholders around a leader, these individuals inadvertently become ambassadors of the solution-focused feedback method. They carry these newly acquired skills into other interactions and discussions, subtly influencing and training others in the organization. Over time, as more individuals become well-versed in this approach, there's a cascading effect, transforming not just individuals but entire teams and departments. The result is an organizational culture that is more supportive, transparent, and focused on continuous growth and improvement.

Take the Next Step: Feedback Certification

Almost all 360 assessment certifications are focused on the wrong thing. Learn how you can change the feedback experience for your clients or employees. See how the work we're doing with the Shift Positive Method can help you turn feedback into the constructive and positive experience it was intended to be. We help organizations create a constructive culture of feedback and teach coaches and HR/LD professionals how to conduct groundbreaking, effective and enjoyable 360's.

  1. Estrada, Isen, and Young. "Positive Affect Facilitates Integration of Information and Decreases Anchoring in Reasoning among Physicians." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 72.1 (1997): 117-35. Web.
  2. If you're wondering, no, they were not allowed to eat the candy before reviewing the files so this was not a response to ingesting sugar.
  3. Nowack and Mashihi. "Evidence-Based Answers to 15 Questions About Leveraging 360-Degree Feedback." Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research (2012): Vol. 64, No. 3: 157-182.