Following the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, researchers studied those who had won gold, silver and bronze medals.  Those who won gold seemed the happiest, but surprisingly those who received bronze seemed happier than those who got silver.

According to a recent article, this is down to what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking” or “what if”, which occurs when we imagine how things could have been different.  The silver medallists judge themselves against those who got gold (what if I’d trained harder, started better … I could have won), dwelling on the negative.  The bronze medallists judge themselves in comparison to all the other people who didn’t win a medal – a much more positive outlook.

When reviewing this “counterfactual thinking” in the workplace, you can see how this can affect the results of a performance review.  If you give a less than perfect rating, all will usually think about what could have been.  Thinking positively about what they’ve achieved and how they can progress going forward will be beneficial.  But those thinking about what they should or could have got may resort to negative emotions such as anger and resentment.

By ensuring that an appraisal has no surprises, is clear and well measured, and uses questions that encourage learning and development, negative counterfactual thinking can be reduced.  This is also where a leader who genuinely wants to help, and believes in and listens to their team will see more success.

How do you take feedback? Could you be thinking more like a silver medallist than a bronze medallist?  Could you be causing friction between yourself and your boss?  And, if so, how can you prepare yourself for the next performance review?

When you’re about to go into a performance review with one of your team, are you prepared for their mode of thinking?  Self-awareness as a leader is essential – understanding more about the way you tick, how you will react in certain situations, and the triggers which can cause you to behave in different ways, will help you in become a great leader who can appreciate and understand others.


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