Many of us talk a good game about our willingness to seek feedback to help us become top performers. The reality is that constructive criticism during the annual performance review can trigger intense fight-flight-or-freeze reactions.

Here’s why: When we experience psychological threats, our bodies produce the same chemicals that it would if we were face-to-face with a physical threat, say a charging bull for example.

David Rock (2001) developed the SCARF model which describes what happens in our brains when we face specific psychological threats to our needs for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Reduction in Status activates the same regions in our brains that’s activated when we experience physical pain. A less than desired performance conversation really hurts. Without certainty our brains experience an error in the orbital frontal cortex.  The feeling that our review is in someone else’s hands threatens our autonomy.  And, if we perceive the process as unfair, our bodies produce an intense emotion of disgust.

These five tips can help you prepare for the process and build long-term resilience.

Be prepared. Most of us review our accomplishments in preparation; it’s equally important to prepare physically and emotionally. Try yoga and emotions meditation to relieve tension. 

Mind the Gap. Remember to create a gap between stimulus and response. In that gap, we can use mindfulness to help us choose a response that will enable us to achieve our desired result.

Cultivate your Resilience. Meditation helps, but it is not the only tool for resilience. A firm sense of purpose can help reframe stressful situations. What’s your personal mission statement? What are your long-term professional goals? What’s your deeper purpose?

Grow in compassion. If you don’t have a positive outlook, it’s difficult to have compassion for yourself. You can easily become consumed by self-defeating, negative self talk. Developing a more positive outlook can be as simple as slowing down and deliberately savoring positive experiences. You may also consider compassion meditation.

Build your generosity. We often associate generosity with giving something with financial value. Choosing to forgive someone who has hurt your feelings or cutting someone a little slack is also a form of generosity. Even experienced managers sometimes miss the mark when facilitating performance conversations. Be generous with empathy.

The SCARF model gives us a deeper understanding of the factors that produce the threat response during the performance review process. These five strategies could be used before a performance review or anytime constructive criticism throws you off balance.

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  • Donna Oti, PhD

    Communication and Talent Development Professional

    Donna's career spans more than 20 years as a journalist, educator, and organizational development consultant. She began her career as a reporter and educator before embarking on a career in Strategic Communication, Leadership, and Organizational Development. She currently works as Adjunct Professor at Howard University, Department of Strategic, Legal and Management Communications and a Talent Development Professional serving U.S. Federal Government Customers.