It was shocking for many ‘World Cup watchers’, even the happy 80 million in a rather large northern European country, to witness in the space of 20 minutes, the meltdown of a proud Brazilian national football team in the World Cup semi-final. The favourites eventually bowed out to Germany 7-1, in the worst-ever defeat in any and every record book. So what happened?
In the post-match analysis the football pundits couldn’t agree. Was it great German tactics? Poor Brazilian defending? Brazil’s best players missing? Characteristic German efficiency? Or maybe combinations of all the above?
I think a large part of the answer may have been addressed if the panel of experts had included psychologists, neuro-scientists, physiologists, behavioural biologists and Gary Lineker (as an expert facilitator!).
In recent years, those focussing on human performance in every walk of life, be it sport, business or anything else for that matter, broadly agree that our mental approach (how we think) is a major contributor/predictor of performance. We also know the product of our physiological responses, (how we feel), affects not only what we think but the actual function of thinking itself. In other words, a scrambled physiology due to stress (anxiety, fear of failure etc.) leads to impaired thinking. Literally a brain shutdown somewhere around about the frontal cortex.
It seemed clear on Tuesday night in Belo Horizonte stadium, that after the first goal went in there was a collective brain shutdown as fear and anxiety set in, together with the pressure of the expectancy of 60,000 supporters in the stadium and another 200 million watching on TV. Scrambled physiologies had shut down brains. The Brazilian team could not respond, even if they wanted to, because their ability to think clearly had gone.
So what can be done to prepare for situations like this? The research suggests it’s a mistake to focus solely on the analysis and try and think of a way out of the situation. Training must focus deeper in the human system on managing the signals and controlling emotions that leave the individual in control and alert even under the severe stress. Anyone watching the men’s Wimbledon final on Sunday will have seen two great exponents of this at work. Djokovic and Federer are at the top of their game not only due to their amazing tennis skills but importantly because of their ability to stay cognitively fully-functioning after 4 hours of stress and pressure.
So what can business leaders learn from these sporting anecdotes? I think there is one well-researched thing we do know, which is that the human response to negative emotional states is the same whatever ‘field’ you play on. Our conditioning causes a natural primitive response that bypasses the need for complex thought so we stop thinking to fight or run. We must train ourselves to override that so we stay fully-functioning even when our world seems to fall apart.
A less well-researched area is how this happens collectively. We notice in flocks of starlings or shoals of mackerel positive (and beautiful) entrained collective working and responses. Sports teams sometimes talk about being ‘in the zone’ when everything seems to flow. What seems less well-researched is the negative end of this phenomenon. What happens when collectively our thinking becomes negatively entrained so the whole system (or in this case the Brazilian team) seems not to function? Is there a collective response as well as an individual response that we need to develop?
Back to football and irrespective of tactics or individual performances, I predict the winner of the final on Sunday, whether during the 90 minutes, extra time or penalties, will be the team that are in the strongest control of their emotional state thus keeping their brains and thinking fully switched on!
Feedback is a vital performance management tool yet most managers don’t like giving feedback, do it ineffectively or don’t do it at all. Why is this?
- Often it’s because a manager doesn’t have the right skills to give feedback effectively, therefore fears some sort of backlash.
- Often there isn’t a culture of excellence that makes regular feedback the norm. Many managers haven’t experienced good feedback themselves and don’t know what it looks like. “Well done,” is nice to hear – but isn’t useful feedback.
- Managers may be reluctant to take responsibility for their team members’ performance so they don’t value feedback as a management tool.
Without effective feedback, individuals have no hope of knowing what they’re doing well, what they need to do more of or less of. Performance will inevitably suffer and employee engagement and morale will drop
So what does effective feedback for employees look like?
- Regular: every day even. If you wait until a project or task is finished it may be too late to keep performance high and you’ve lost a chance to boost the individual’s skills and confidence. It is definitely not ok to only give feedback once or twice a year in a performance appraisal. Aim to make feedback part of your team’s culture… and watch performance improve.
- Factual: Hearsay, rumour or third party reporting can be disputed and can disrupt a positive feedback environment. You always need the facts, first hand.
- Specific: “Well done” tells the individual little. Which bit was well done? What made it well done? Why was it well done? To keep it specific, try using the simple mnemonic AID. Action: What the individual has actually done. Stick to the facts. Impact: The effect the individual’s actions have/had/could have. Do/Do differently: What needs to be done – more or less of the same? Or something different altogether?
- It focuses on behaviour and actions, not personality, attitude or character ie it is objective not subjective. Avoid, “You did that badly” or “you’re no good at…”. Instead suggest an action which could be improved: “That could be more effective if the xyz was deployed more quickly” or “What would have to change to make sure xyz didn’t happen next time?”
- It involves the individual and gives them responsibility for their actions. If you ask them “How do you think that went?” you will usually find they know what went well and what didn’t go well. Then you can coach them to identify ways to improve it for next time. If they are overly self-critical you have the pleasant task of explaining, using AID perhaps, why their performance was better than they thought. If they’ve missed something out, you can ask about a specific aspect of the task, “And what about xyz?” Give them a chance to tell you what they already think. Use coaching techniques where possible.
- It is often positive. Remember to give people feedback when they’re doing something well – not just when they’re doing something performance-limiting. It is just as important that people understand when and why they’re doing something useful and effective (AID is still appropriate). It makes people feel valued and reinforces effective behaviour.
- It doesn’t rely on the ‘feedback sandwich’: Positive/Negative/Positive does not always work. At best it can dilute the message; at worst it can leave the individual confused about what the key feedback actually is. If you need to feedback about something that didn’t go well, it is probably worth focusing on that issue on that occasion.
- It is timely and carried out in an appropriate location. This might mean it is done straightaway while the action is still fresh. Alternatively it may be more effective a few hours or a day or two later so that all parties are in the best emotional state to remain objective and effective. Allocate enough time, choose an undisturbed, quiet location, perhaps on neutral territory if it is likely to be a difficult conversation.
- It is a two- way street. Don’t wait for someone to give you feedback – ask for it. Make it easy for people to feel comfortable giving you feedback by asking, “What could I do more of/less of? What should I stop doing/start doing? What could I do differently?” If you hear something you weren’t expecting or difficult, you don’t have to react straightaway. Say something along the lines of, “Thanks for telling me that. I need to think about that. Can I get back to you in a few hours/days?”
- It is properly managed: it should be aligned to performance goals and reviewed. Show how the feedback can help them reach their goals and targets. If you give some feedback that prompts a change in behaviour, follow up on it to review progress.
Done regularly and effectively, feedback can be recognised as an opportunity, not a threat. People will be happy to take the rough with the smooth when they know that feedback is objective, appropriate and useful, designed to help them do their job better.