Even when you're on top of your work, performing well, and on good terms with your boss, it's hard to avoid feeling nervous when they brush by the back of your desk.
Part of that reaction is unconscious and difficult to control, simply because of the way our brains work.
According to David Rock, the head of the NeuroLeadership Institute, an organization that aims to apply neuroscience to our work lives, it's all about our brain's constant decisions as to whether something's a threat or a reward.
Those decisions happen about 5 times every second, he tells The New York Times' Adam Bryant. And the strongest threats and rewards are social. Social threats and rewards actually activate the brain's pain/pleasure center in a pretty significant way.
"... someone feeling left out of an activity, for example, would activate the same regions as if they had put their hand on a hot plate," Rock says.
Managers have to navigate a threat/reward minefield.
- There's a status trigger. Feeling a lower status creates a strong threat, especially in a feedback situation. People push back because their lower status is being highlighted.
- There's an uncertainty threat because bosses usually know more than employees, and can make drastic changes.
- There's a control threat, because bosses have the ability to lessen or constrain autonomy and control.
All of these can combine to form a strong unconscious threat response , which can make workers nervous and defensive, especially at times of heightened stress like at a performance review.
Not only does that make day-to-day interactions fraught, it makes it unlikely either party will get anything out of a performance review.
There's a tendency to think that people only get defensive when they're in the wrong. That's not the case. There are power and status issues at play as well.
Most businesses require some kind of hierarchy and authority. The key is to never let that authority be used arbitrarily. Once trust is lost, it takes a long time for workers to get over being nervous every time an authority figure comes by.
Some organizations are trying to avoid this by being radically transparent, making sure that everything from the company's ownership, decision-making process, and everybody's salaries are freely available.
Even if you don't go that far, expectations, transparency, and respect do a lot.
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