All too often performance reviews, feedback sessions and updates devolve into frustrating and defensive shutdowns. They leave the participants in a worse place than where they were before the conversation. So how can you reshape these career sessions to produce change, growth and significant development?
The key is to shift the conversation from a problem orientation to a developmental opportunity.
Quentin Skinner, of the University of London, points out that any change of words is, underneath, a change of perspective or viewpoint. So the rhetorical shift from a problem orientation to development opportunity is the difference between looking backward and looking forward: looking backward focuses on blame, but looking forward can create high value. That conversational shift can also increase knowledge flow and creativity both for the individual and the organization.
The conversational shift looks like this:
What went well? And what can I learn from that?
What needs to go better? And how can I make those changes?
Making the rhetorical shift will require us to develop a new and novel story, including how to interact around the new questions....
But focusing on failure language is far more problematic. “Failure conversations” tend to limit relationships for a time, result in filtered information and often constrict the person, thus impacting problem solving and creativity negatively. The language of “what’s going wrong” is usually threatening, often provokes argument and, typically, causes people to dig in.
We’ve used the same failure storyline again and again, so it’s in our memory bank. We fall back on the habits we’ve learned from hard experience. Furthermore, memory tells us to protect ourselves from the failure feedback and resist the other’s words, actions and behaviors. Memory also requires no thinking. So we cling to our perspective and defend it as if our life depended on it.
Keys from neuroscience and learning
Memory and thinking take place in different parts of the brain. Human beings live and act out of their memories, insulated from direct experience. Memory is limited. The parameters of its responses are already set. The emotions are already defined. Although memory can save us, it can also destroy us.
If instead, we focus on the approach of the novel questions, the conversation can head in the direction we desire: collaboration and mutual exploration of ideas. Certainly the novel questions will require thinking and learning from the conversations before they can be warehoused in memory. But learning from success helps to overcome the difficulties of learning from failure. Success leads to more analysis than failure. It also motivates the person to search out the factors of success and failure, refining previous actions. In many cases learning from success has a stronger effect than learning from failure. Although learning from success can increase the likelihood of overconfidence, when both the conversational questions are analyzed, the “need to go better” can limit overconfidence.
Corporate communication, command and control and top-down directives no longer work. The information era that Warren Bennis calls the “Era of Options,” requires sophisticated, intimate interactions of conversational sensibility throughout the organization. Indeed, language shifts like this are eminently scalable. They inform us of the need for linguistic change in many different settings. The use of new rhetoric, as in this shift, is a change that will provide career options. Without that shift, careers can spin on in their traditionally limited ways.