TheBigCompany is one of the very reputed companies in the city and developer Dave was very exited to get a job offer from TheBigCompany. During the interview process, the recruiter (and the hiring manager) had talked about incentives, including a possible bonus of $10,000 after a year, by evaluating his performance through the annual performance review process. The annual performance review is due shortly. Dave has to fill in a self-appraisal form as well as get "feedback" from his manager Mark on his performance. Dave has been a star performer, a eager learner, and a team player. But as much as he is a team player, the organization's performance review process is geared towards assessing the performance of an individual against his/her annual goals. Mark wants to meet Dave tomorrow at 11:00 AM to finalize Dave's annual performance.
Looking at Performance Review through SCARF:
Over the years, our brain has evolved to survive by "minimizing danger and maximizing rewards". David Rock proposes that there are predominantly five domains of social experience that our brain considers for survival: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness. What matters is our perception of these five elements for a given stimulus (e.g. event / context) , regardless of whether the stimulus is real or false . These five elements are also interconnected, and affecting one of these elements (in a negative or positive way) has a domino effect on other elements as well. Threats and rewards activate the pain/pleasure circuits in our brain. Anything that boosts our SCARF is views as reward and we are motivated to do more of it (to gain pleasure). Anything that reduces our SCARF is seen as a threat and generates a flight/fight response (to reduce pain). Recent studies have shown that physical pleasure and activate the same circuitry as social pleasure (e.g. food, sex) and physical pain activate the same regions of the brain as social pain. By default, any external stimulus is categorized as a threat, unless proved to be otherwise. And some of these responses are so small that we may not even consciously notice it (and we can be trained to notice it by practicing mindfulness).
StatusWhen Dave knows that he has to complete his performance review, his brain subconsciously initiates a threat response. There is a threat to his status, he is judged on how valuable he is to others (relative importance) . It is also about his recognition and "pecking order". The mere act of speaking to his manager Mark who, in his perception, has a higher status creates a threat. If Mark is known to be critical, it will generate a greater threat response in Dave than if Mark is known as a cordial person.
Most of us are not very effective in giving feedback, and when someone gives us a feedback, there is an immediate (but subtle) threat to our status. The threat is more if the feedback is given by someone with authority and power and is less if it from someone whom we trust. Most of the time, we defend our stance, to protect our status and to not be perceived as less than what we were perceived. This explains someone defensiveness when they are confronted/given feedback.
Dave's meeting with Mark is characterized by uncertainty. The only certain fact is that Mark and Dave are going to talk about Dave's performance. He is only given annual feedback and consequently has very little chance to take corrective actions to receive rewards (the $10,000 bonus + other incentives). There are other factors (like the notorious bucketing system, company performance, team's performance, formal and informal feedback about him given by others to Mark) which add up and the implication of these are not known to Dave till he gets his final results.
Our brain has evolved to be a pattern recognition machine. It likes rhythms, cadence and cycles. It receive patterns from outside world, store them and makes predictions based on what it knows and what is happening now. When the expectations are met, the reward/pleasure circuitry is activated (as chances of our survival increase) When those expectations are not met, our "error detection circuitry" (orbital cortex ) and "fear circuit" (amygdala) is activated. Priming the brain (in this case, Dave knowing about the meeting ahead of time) about a future threat event does not reduce the anxiety
Dave has very little control or say (autonomy) over determining the outcome of his review. And if TheBigCompany is like any other big company, Dave would have very little say in determining what his next year's goals would be.
Autonomy and certainty are very closely linked. A sense of autonomy is the degree to which a person can control his or her environment to maximize the chances of survival. When we lack a sense of autonomy, blood flow is directed from our prefrontol cortex (our thinking brain) to limbic system (also called as the reptilian brain). Our limbic system is much older than prefrontal cortex and is tuned to maximize our survival by equipping us to take a fight/flight response instantaneously. Having a choice (or even a perceived sense of autonomy) reduces stress and consequently reduces the arousal of our brain's limbic system and activates our prefrontal cortex.
Humans as social beings. During evolution, our chances of survival increase when we lived together as tribes and hence a large portion of our human brain is devoted to social networking. Recent studies show that when our brain is at rest, the default mode network (DMN) ( a type of neural circuitry) is active and there is a strong correlation between areas of brain responsible for social cognition and DMN. When we interconnect our thoughts, emotions and goals with others whom we can relate with, we release oxytocin, a pleasure chemical (This is the same chemical release by newborns when they are fed). Recent theories on Attachment, mirror neurons only bolster the fact that we are more social than what we initially thought.
When Dave is evaluated with respect to others, his sense of relatedness (with others) is decreased as it creates a "Dave vs. others" situation regardless of whether Dave gets his reward (If you are a manager, you now know that this is a double edged sword. Regardless of who gets rewarded, it creates a me vs. others situation).
People's perception are different and what Mark perceives as fair and may not be the same as what Dave perceives as fair and just. The more Mark tries to justify his stance, the more Dave may defend to say why it is fair that he should receive the reward (Sometimes, Dave's dialog may be an internal dialogue on why Mark is wrong and why he is right).
Fairness tastes like chocolate. When you perceive something as fair, the same regions of the brain (ventral straitum) are activated as when you eat chocolate. A sense of fairness drives a lot of our emotions and everyday behavior. A perceived sense of fairness can build positive emotions (releasing dopamine and reinforcing reward based learning). Making something right (or fair) also releases serotonin, a chemical which can calm the brain (the same chemical is released with anti-depression drugs like Prozac) When you perceive someone as being fair, an increased sense of trust is developed, reinforcing "Relatedness" and releasing oxytocin. When the expectation of fairness is met, it creates more certainty for our brain. When the expectation of fairness is not met even slightly, especially from someone whom we trust, strong hurt feelings are generated which may last for many days.
Abraham Maslow may have been only partially right in suggesting that our physical needs are the primary needs for motivation. New research in the field of social neurobiology suggests that our social needs are as important as our primary physical needs, if not more.