Should You Blame Employees For Panicking When Times Are Hard?

I remember seeing the film ‘Carrie’ when it first came out. If you are too young to have heard of this film it was a real classic of its time and featured at the end a scene still imprinted on my mind.

A beautiful young girl is floating down a lane carrying a small bunch of flowers for the grave of another girl.

The music is calm. As you watch you are feeling sad. I was as I sat there with my hand on the arm of my boyfriend.

As the girl kneels by the grave and gently lays down the flowers, suddenly a hand erupts from the grave and grabs her wrist.

It doesn’t sound that scary does it? But at the time it was, believe me. I grasped the arm of my poor boyfriend. A small detail that made it worse was that I used to play guitar and consequently had rather long fingernails on that hand. So the poor guy got the full feeling of something grabbing his wrist as well as the visual effect. No wonder he virtually leapt from his seat in an uncontrolled response. (We are still on speaking terms in spite of it.)

Though I laugh about it now (thirty years later) I can still remember how it felt.

At Work

We’ve all seen it happen at work too. Perhaps the circumstances aren’t as grisly, but the effect on the brain is the same. People panic or freeze when the chips are down. And, at the moment, there are a lot of chips down.

I was listening to a lecture by Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale University, as she explained what happens in your brain under these circumstances. Basically, an uncontrolled stress leads your body to turn off your prefrontal cortex.

What Do You Need Your Prefrontal Cortex For?

This is the part of your brain where your ‘higher cognitive functions’ take place. Here are some of the things it does:
* represent goals and information that are not there in the current environment
* conceptualise
* have ideas
* make plans
* organise what you are doing in a way that enables you to achieve your goals
* allows you to make decisions
* allows you to make judgements
* gives you insights into people and events
* inhibits inappropriate behaviour
* inhibits interference from distractions

Unfortunately, it’s very sensitive to the chemical environment (the hormones and other chemicals washing around) that it finds itself in. It needs them to be perfectly balanced to perform well in any situation.

This means that when you get stressed it shuts down because of the chemicals you generate when you are stressed. That’s what happens in the worst scenarios. You completely freeze and are unable to think.

How Do You Unfreeze Your Brain?

There are three ways of doing this I’m going to outline here:
* Confidence
* Training
* Relaxing

Here is what Prof. Arnsten recommends. The key is confidence. This goes back to Hans Salye’s experiments on rats over 60 years ago. He discovered that rats that thought they were in control were less stressed than those who thought they weren’t.

In other words, confident rats didn’t get stressed. It turns out that this is also true for humans. When you feel confident you turn the prefrontal cortex back on – so you can think again.

How Should Managers Treat People For Best Performance?

I have seen a rise in the number of emails and other enquiries I am getting about bullying recently. I’m sure this is due to the extra stresses at the moment. It’s easy for managers when they are stressed, to resort to this behaviour. However, it generally doesn’t give the results you need.

Managers, at this time in particular, need to be helping people to feel confident and coaching them.


People who survive difficult situations effectively have often been trained in them so they are able to respond without thinking, in other words, without having to use their prefrontal cortex. This is another way to help people perform effectively ‘under fire’. That’s why rehearsing things is so useful. I remember a comment on one brilliant piano player. The announcer said: ‘Most people practise till they can get it right. He practised till he couldn’t get it wrong.’

A Last Tip – Relaxing

Here’s a technique I have often used that works really well and I was delighted to hear Professor Arnsten recommending it and explaining that it was also one she found to be effective.

When something happens and your brain freezes up, delay your response if at all possible. (It’s not always possible, but in many cases it is.) This is for situations like opening a letter or email and getting what appears to be bad news or something that causes you stress. Or it could be someone giving you some bad news.

Leave it and go and do something that you find helps you to relax and be calm. This enables you to switch your prefrontal cortex back on again.

Often when I use this technique and get back to the email or letter I find it’s nothing like as bad as I thought, and I can work out how to deal with it.

In her case, Professor Arnsten takes a hot shower and a walk in the country. In mine I like to go for a run whilst I listen to an episode of science fiction series on my iPod. Then I have a shower. Or better yet, I watch an old episode of Star Trek whilst treating myself to some chocolate. (Yes, I confess to being a Trekkie.)

The Key

Find your own personal way of being calm and getting that prefrontal cortex turned on before you tackle any difficult issues. The results will speak for themselves.

In Summary

Remember, we can all end up switching off our prefrontal cortex. It’s not something we do on purpose. We need to help ourselves and others handle those situations effectively.


Badly Written Comments on Appraisals and Performance Reviews

Last week I had an email from a Grapevine reader concerned about comments her manager had written on her performance review/appraisal document.

I suggested she send the document through for me to see. When I read it I understood immediately why she was so concerned.

What He Had Written

The comments he had made were opinions and in one case ‘facts’ that looked like evidence of poor performance, but that weren’t when the background was explained.

Have You Had Any Poorly Written Feedback On Your Appraisal?
If you have, I’d love to hear what happened to you.

Two Sides

When I help clients deal with poor performance in their employees one of the first things I ask about is their performance reviews or appraisals. Most of the time, even with performance issues that have been going on for years, there is no mention of this in the written records. (In one case 22 years!)

This usually suggests that the issues have not been tackled or dealt with. It can also mean that the employee has been completely unaware of the problem themselves, so has not done anything to improve.

In several cases (in particular of bullying that has been going on for years) I have seen appraisal forms speaking of ‘exemplary performance’ and given high ratings.

If you have struggled putting appropriate feedback on someone’s form, please let us know by making a comment below.

What Are The Comments In Appraisals For?

To answer this question we need to know what they are going to be used for. For this we really need to go back to the purpose of the appraisal itself.

In my view the purpose of the appraisal or performance review is to put the individual in the best possible position to achieve the following year’s objectives. In order to do that the individual needs to know what he or she needs to do differently (if anything).

Of course, in many organisations the review is also part of the information used to assess pay and bonus payments.

So, should the manager’s remarks be a vague set of general opinions (as was the case from our Grapevine reader’s manager) or should they be factual details of the individual’s achievements against their objectives?


Clearly any comments need to be factual; what happened, what was achieved. Unfortunately this means the manager does need to do their homework properly. In our reader’s case, it seems that he hadn’t.

During The Year

To fill out the forms effectively it’s much easier if you keep records during the year of achievements against the objectives and agree them with your team as you go. Then, at the end of the year, the job is virtually done – and much more accurate.

It seems to me that any manager who does not do this and fills in forms with vague opinions and sweeping, unsubstantiated comments should themselves receive poor ratings on their performance review or appraisal documentation.

What Are Your Comments and Experiences?

Do send me your own thoughts and comments. I’ll look forward to reading them and responding.

If you need any help on giving writing feedback for performance reviews you will find examples on page 17 of my booklet ‘Praise and the Appraisal’. Use the link to find out more.

Make sure any comments you add are accurate and factual, and question any on your own form that aren’t.

Welcome to the New Vinehouse Blog!

Here at last is the Vinehouse blog, where you will be able to read news and comment on everything to do with performance management and people skills.

You may already be a subscriber to Grapevine, Nancy Slessenger’s regular ezine. This is intended to provide additional material, and also give you a chance to share your comments on Nancy’s views.

We hope you will enjoy this extra feature. We would be pleased to hear from you either here or via our contact page.

The Vinehouse Team