Why OKRs Are So Good for the Brain

by Roger Longden | Feb 07, 2017

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Objectives and Key Results (OKRs for short) are changing how companies define and communicate success. Why not have a read through our free beginners guide to OKRs to get more information on how you can align and grow your company.

I’ve not been shy about my disdain for the annual appraisal. In fact, it’s now my mission to rid the world of it. Judging by the frequent roll of the eyes, sigh or grimace when they come up in conversation, I’m not alone. In this blog, I want to discuss why OKRs are better for the brain and business more broadly.

So why is this stalwart of performance management practice, the annual appraisal, so despised? To answer that, I need to give you a very quick tour of our most primal piece of programming.

Before anything else, our brains are wired to keep us safe and alive. In the main, we’re all pretty grateful for that. To do that though, we have each built up our own rolodex of perceived threat. These can be thumbed through at lightning speed when we think we might be looking trouble in the face. This all happens so fast that I don’t need to stand there and wonder if that car is going to hit me. I’ll just get the hell out of the way.

As great as all that might seem, there’s one problem. Some of the definitions written on those rolodex cards might not be quite so life-threatening. However, that doesn’t stop our trigger-happy defence systems firing off. When that happens, our bodies literally go into fight or flight, and guess what? That’s no good if you need to be objective, creative or resourceful – all qualities you need to perform well in the workplace.

Let’s look back to the annual appraisal. David Rock found that even the prospect of an impending appraisal sets off our fight or flight circuits and closes down all those useful resources. I wrote about this in my research paper “Priming for Performance” and there’s also good round up of studies on business.com.

So, why are Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) a better brain “fit”? There are many reasons, but I’m going to examine what I consider to be the top three.

3 reasons why OKRS are good for the brain

First, OKRs are generally discussed on a weekly or fortnightly basis. This removes the vast disconnect between the setting and reviewing of annual objectives. As we all know, business velocity is vastly accelerated in today’s enterprise. You can be certain what was needed 12 months ago probably won’t be relevant now. Trying to judge someone’s performance against year-old objectives is therefore likely to be met with frustration at best, and unfairness at worst.

Second, OKR best practice favours the decoupling of objectives and pay. This reduces the chance of an objective conversation becoming emotionally charged. I’m not suggesting you don’t pay for performance, but that the reward decision takes in more than just OKR achievement. This can include factors such as how well they represent your values, their future potential and market value.

Third, as OKRs are a collaborative and inclusive process (if done well), there’s the opportunity for managers to increase the role of their people in key decisions. This will boost their sense of inclusion and create a sense that they are valued. This goes directly to enhancing one of the key areas David Rock argues we can positively impact to improve collaboration – status.

So now you know why OKRs are a much stronger option than the annual appraisal. The bottom line is, you can change your performance management from being an emotionally charged annual event to a process that just happens and becomes the way your team works. It will likely be the biggest single change you can make to transform the achievements of your business.

OKRs represent a performance management methodology which connects the work of individual employees to your company’s overall strategy. Looking to learn more? Read our blog ‘What are OKRS and how can they help my business?’

Download your Beginner's Guide to OKRs