What employees really think during reviews

Here’s the psychological explanation for why most evaluations don’t go the way they should.

After the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, researchers from Cornell University studied the facial expressions of the athletes who won gold, silver, and bronze medals. They analysed footage of ceremonies and television interviews and found that gold medalists seemed the happiest. What a shock, right?

But they also noticed something curious: The bronze medalists seemed much happier than the silver medalists.

How could people who finished third be happier than people who finished second? The answer lies in understanding what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking” – or what the rest of us call “what if?”

Counterfactual thinking occurs when we imagine how things might have been different. When something happens – especially something significant – we think about alternatives to our current reality to understand how we ended up where we are. Sometimes we feel good about where we are compared to where we could be. Sometimes we don’t.

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