Is everyday management a social threat to employees?

Management RewiredThere’s a neat article by Reuters discussing how workers’ brains and management practices often work at cross-purposes. They cite, among others, Charles Jacobs, author of the book “Management Rewired,” recently reviewed here. An excerpt of the Reuters piece:

“One of the things organizations need to do is respect the deeply social nature of the brain. People are not rational, they are social,” David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” (HarperBusiness), told Reuters in an interview. “The social brain is such that we are really driven to increase social rewards, and we are really driven to minimize social threats.”

your brain at workRock, the founder of a company that applies the insights of brain science to leadership coaching, lists five areas in which our brain’s threat mechanisms are easily triggered at work: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

When we feel threatened in any of these spheres — a superior displays power over us, rumors circulate about the future of our job, our work is micro-managed, we are excluded from colleagues’ conversations, or our work is unjustly overlooked — our brains focus our attention on the threat.

Jacobs, in his book, writes about the deeply illogical outcomes of giving and receiving feedback: oftentimes, rewards often undermine continuing what we are doing well, while negative feedback reinforces the undesirable behavior. Writes Jacobs: “A landmark study at General Electric found that the company’s performance appraisal system not only didn’t work, it produced results that were virtually the opposite of what was intended…. GE found that a manager’s praise had no effect on performance one way or the other, while the areas that a manager criticized showed the least improvement.”

What are your experiences with performance reviews, management encounters, etc.? Have they felt like threats to you?

(Hat tip to Felix Salmon)

Related post:
Considering the mind: mini-reviews of “Buyology,” “Management Rewired,” and “Free Market Madness”

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  • Wally Bock

    If we're going to cite experts and studies to critique the effectiveness of performance appraisals, let's at least try to stick with reputable ones. I haven't yet read David Rock's new book, but based on his prior work, I'd say that you'll find helpful information and good reporting on studies cited. Not so for Charles Jacobs and his inaccurate and misleading book.

    Let's consider the article that's the source of the quote in the Reuters' story and reprinted in your post. The article cited is not a “landmark study” within any common meaning of the term. The article is cited only six times in scholarly literature since its publication in 1964.

    The researchers did not study feedback. They studied the performance appraisal system in place at GE in the early 1960s. Their comments on feedback were based on a performance appraisal system that gave a worker feedback only once a year. GE has since changed this procedure in several ways.

    And, the study (named “Split Roles in Performance Appraisal”) was based on the analysis of less than one hundred questionnaires that represented only the questionnaires filled out and returned. Not a real big, broad, or scientifically drawn sample.

    There's a lot we can learn from cognitive science that will help us change a performance appraisal system that most observers agree needs an overhaul. But we won't make wise choices if we base those choices on junk reporting of results from “studies” that are outdated and weren't scientific to begin with.

  • jmcaddell

    Wally, thanks for your comment. I liked Jacobs' book, but I agree after reading your analysis that the citation is, at best, very dated and possibly misleading (I wasn't able to get to the full paper at HBR). [It doesn't seem that you like Jacobs' book much at all; is that correct?]

    I am interested in understanding of cognitive science and how it impacts on personnel management and feedback, in particular. This is based on my personal experience dreading giving (and getting) performance reviews, and not perceiving a beneficial impact on my overall development – not any scientific basis.

    Are there any sources you would suggest I look at to get better informed on this?

    regards, John

  • Wally Bock

    You're right, John, I don't like Jacobs' book. In my review on Amazon, I characterized it as “Not surprising, not accurate, not the latest brain science and not worth the money.” The same review appeared on my blog at

    But let's move on to your other question. David Rock has written quality material on this subject for a while. He publishes frequently in Strategy + Business. In 2006, he and Jeffrey Schwartz published “The Neuroscience of Leadership.” It's at

    In August, the same journal carried “Managing with the Brain in Mind.” I believe it was published to help promote his new book. Here's the link to article.

    I have not read his new book, but I will be surprised if it varies in quality from those two articles.