Effective Employee Feedback: The Power of ‘Positive Emotional Attractors’
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Effective Employee Feedback: The Power of ‘Positive Emotional Attractors’

Imagine this scenario: You have a hotshot young employee who is so good you’ve already asked him to lead a team after just a year on the job. Only problem is, you’re now hearing that several team members consider him inflexible, even tyrannical.

You’ve got to get him back on track before he irretrievably damages his future with the organization — or drives other good people away. You decide a feedback session with him is the way to go. So what do you say? Do you tell him something like this? “I promoted you because I thought you could inspire this team to achieve outstanding results. That’s not happening. Your management style is alienating people and has to change. But I want to reassure you I’m willing to help.”

Sounds like a good approach. You’ve clearly stated the problem and let the guy know that change is necessary, while also offering your support in the change effort.

But according to a major study about how the brain processes feedback, this approach is likely to boomerang.

Challenges vs. possibilities

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University recorded two separate interviews with subjects. One focused positively on the subject’s future. The other focused on current challenges the subject was facing. Then the researchers replayed the interviews to those same subjects while they were wired to brain scanners. And it turned out that the brain responded to these two approaches in dramatically different ways.

The future-focused interview triggered what the study leader, Richard Boyatzis, calls the Positive Emotional Attractor, or PEA. The scans showed robust activity in the reward circuitry of the brain, creating feelings of optimism, possibilities, curiosity, learning and experimentation – precisely the state of mind that inspires people to change.

In contrast, the “current challenges” interviews triggered the Negative Emotional Attractor, or NEA. The scans showed high activity in brain circuitry associated with the fight-or-flight response. Boyatzis concluded that these interviews created stress, causing people to “defend themselves and close down” – a state of mind that makes it more difficult to change behavior.

What does this research mean for your straight-talk approach with your young team leader? Well, because you’re focusing hard on current challenges, the research strongly suggests you’re activating negative brain circuitry which creates defensiveness and anxiety – making him less likely to respond well to coaching.

Blend the positive and the negative

Where does this leave you? Surely the research doesn’t mean you can’t tell someone the truth about their shortcomings.

You can still be straightforward while giving feedback to someone who needs to improve. Here’s a three-step technique:


Acknowledge the person’s value. You might say: “Your performance during your first year here was exceptional. I identified you as a high-potential employee who could play an important leadership role. And I still believe that.”

Be real

State the problem clearly and honestly. “Let’s be candid. In your first go at leadership, you didn’t get the results you wanted. Would you agree with that?” Sure, this part of the conversation isn’t going to activate Positive Emotional Attraction. But it’s necessary.

Show curiosity

Here’s where PEA comes into play. You ask the team leader to visualize his future. “I’m curious. If you were to paint a picture of where you want to go with our company, what would it look like? What are your goals? How do you want others to perceive you? And how do you see yourself making a difference?” These questions get the person focused on the future, on possibilities, on dreams they know can be achieved only if they’re willing to change.

Will this young team leader succeed in the long run? Maybe, maybe not. But brain research suggests that the feedback model above, which combines positive and negative feedback, reduces anxiety and defensiveness and increases feelings of optimism and possibility – which in turn enables development and change.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “How to Offer Feedback That Actually Changes Behavior. ” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Boyatzis, R. E., Rochford, K., & Taylor, S. N. (2015). The role of the positive emotional attractor in vision and shared vision: Toward effective leadership, relationships, and engagement. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 670.

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