Why are performance conversations frequently unproductive?

by 23 Jul 2012

Why are performance conversations frequently unproductive?

The answer is often ‘separation distress’ caused by our emotional operating system. Recent neuroscience research explains why this is so.

Giving and receiving performance feedback should be mutually beneficial to manager and employee. Instead, it frequently ends in tears or results in accusations of bullying. The unpleasant experience causes the manager to avoid future attempts, to the detriment of personal growth, performance and productivity.

There is a relationship between a performance conversation and that ancient part of our brain responsible for self-protection, which triggers an involuntary fight, flight or freeze reaction. 

Although performance conversations are normally not life threatening, they can elicit an ‘Amygdala Hijack’ which simulates a similar physical reaction to when our lives are at risk. This often accelerates the heart rate, increases breathing, tightens stomach muscles and starves the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain), of oxygen - a condition that is most unhelpful when participating in a performance conversation.

Why does this happen?

Human beings greatly value connectedness and affiliation and when we experience feelings of separation from others, the resultant anxiety can feel life threatening – painful even! Our emotional system employs various tactics to avoid this, and/or to reconnect. We use tools like playfulness or caring for others to maintain connection, but when this doesn’t work, separation distress sometimes takes over and we might feel misunderstood, unappreciated or undervalued.

For example, notice what happens when we say things with the very best intentions to a loved one, only to receive a puzzling ‘cold shoulder’ or angry response?

How do we react?

When performance feedback causes feelings of separation, which most of us will recognise as defensiveness, we react in one of three ways:


(a)          Secure reaction – we appreciate the benefits of the feedback and accept it as useful even if it is painful. The pain usually contains elements of separation distress yet it does not overwhelm us, allowing us to stay present and to engage with the discussion to gain clarity and deeper understanding.

(b)          ‘Wall’ reaction – we become remote and ‘sulk’ and avoid contact for a period of time.

(c)           Angry/Anxious reaction – we display anger or anxiety and look for a quick response.


(Ironically, both reactions (b) and (c) have the same motive – reconnection; but each will require a different response from the manager. The ‘Wall’ reaction needs time to reconnect whereas the ‘Angry/Anxious’ reaction is usually looking for a quick resolution).

Since human beings have evolved to be connected with others in small social groups, the three responses are different ways to manage the anxiety resulting from the reality or perception of separation. Reconnection is not possible until the anxiety has subsided, and each requires a different management approach. A person who responds with the ‘Wall’ needs to disengage from the conversation and take some time and space to calm before reconnecting. A person who responds with the ‘Angry/Anxious’ reaction needs to stay engaged and will continue to protest until they perceive that they are back in connection. The ‘Secure’ reaction has flexibility to do either, depending upon the situation and the state of the other person.

How should we deal with it?

Just being aware of what’s going on, and why, can be sufficient to create a more resourceful state for productive conversations and behaviour change.

Here is a tried and tested four-step process which my colleagues and I find helpful when managing defensiveness:


1. Identify the sensation – Actually describe to yourself what the feelings are eg perspiration, increased heart rate, trembling etc.

2. Breathe – A professional ballet dancer once recommended the 3x3 exercise to me to re-oxygenate and calm the body i.e. breathe in to the count of 8, hold your breath to the count of 8, and exhale to the count 8. Repeat this twice if possible.

3. Move to an observer position - Ask: ‘what is happening for me? Am I feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, or undervalued? What do I need? What is happening for the other person? What do they need?’

4. Respond – Take the appropriate action to allow the separation distress to be managed. If either party is experiencing a “threat response” as a result of their interaction it will not be possible to continue the discussion in a productive way.


Our ultimate aim is to clarify and agree on the action required to meet the needs of both parties and which achieves a realistic and mutually beneficial outcome. To get that outcome, it is important we pay attention to the role played by separation distress within ourselves and others. In this way we can work with our innate human characteristics for mutual benefit, rather than against them.

More information about the brain and human emotions can be found in a book written by Davidson and Begley titled “Emotional Life of Your Brain”.


About the author

Dr Tony van Rensburg is a performance advisor and coach and works with two specialist consulting firms: exceptionalpeople, (HR consulting and L&D) and Collins Pitt ( performance and productivity). Tony can be contacted on tonyvr@exceptionalpeople.com.au or tonyvr@collinspitt.com



Most Read