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  /  HR   /  When silence is not golden – have the brave conversation
Silence is not always golden. As professionals in the human resources industry, we have seen many opportunities lost because leaders avoid having a much-needed conversation with an employee.
Within the workplace, ‘silence’ can result in inappropriate behaviour going unchecked, poor performance being tolerated, the more innocuous behaviours that bother us (but are hard to articulate) becoming the norm, and the really positive behaviours, that should be celebrated and reinforced, being overlooked.

Communicating with intent is one of the greatest opportunities for leaders, and yet, it is one of the least practised habits.

There is no doubt that leading and managing people is difficult – however it is the management of people’s behaviours that leaders seem to struggle with most.

Tangible tasks and KPIs are, for the most part, quite easy to talk about – they are either achieved or not achieved. However, it is the behaviour of people within the workplace that is often much harder to define and articulate.

To a great extent, traditional methods of performance management have stifled relationships within the workplace. Traditional methods include the clunky and timed methods of setting KPIs and objectives, followed by predetermined feedback sessions once or twice a year to review performance against those objectives.

We have long been schooled to provide and receive feedback in this formal, structured way – a method that does not foster regular, genuine engagement. Instead we ‘go through the motions’ to document what has to be done and what was achieved, often delivering the feedback long after the event – to the detriment of relationships.

How is the traditional employee feedback system limiting?

The failure of this traditional system of managing expectations is multi-layered:

  • It treats employees a bit like machines – much like your car, but you can’t service a person once a year and expect superior performance.
  • The approach is robotic and clunky – locking people into an overly structured, insincere relationship, that stifles feedback – giving managers a reason to put feedback on hold until the performance review.
  • Performance is measured in outcomes – it discusses events that have happened in the past that cannot be changed.
  • It focuses on KPI-based outcomes with little room for discussion on the behaviours demonstrated, whether positive or negative, to achieve those outcomes.

So, what’s the best approach to employee feedback?

Leaders need to provide a healthy dose of informal feedback combined with formal feedback regarding behaviours, that are directly related to the organisation’s values.

The role of values building expectations

How we behave personally and as a collective really matters. For example, if a business truly values their customer, it is imperative to ensure all employees behave in ways that demonstrate that.

So, when the phone rings at one minute to 5pm, will the phone be answered? If your value is well understood and reinforced – the decision to pick up the phone will be a natural conclusion and the behaviour of the employee, to answer the phone will be reflected externally in the customer’s experience. The key lesson here is to define how our values should dictate how we ought to behave every day.

The more we talk about values and what’s important to us as a business, the more tangible they become. For example, defining behaviours that are linked to integrity, such as taking responsibility for mistakes and reinforcing this positively when employees do this (or realigning expectations if they don’t), is essential to creating true engagement and authentic leadership.

It’s easier to raise a behavioural issue if there is a direct link to a company value. It removes an element of subjectivity, which is often why leaders feel ill-equipped to give feedback regarding behaviours.

The more we talk about values and what’s important to us at our business, the clearer they become. It is about creating habits as leaders to deliberately and continuously reinforce expectations – and the thing you will find is, the more you do it, the more you will find the bulk of feedback you give is positive.

The key to aligning your values with overall performance is to understand how your values determine the behaviour you want to see in the workplace. Just as importantly, like every good role model, leaders need to ensure they are consistently behaving in accordance with these values too.

The art of giving feedback – the sandwich technique

The feedback sandwich has been a widely used technique in workplaces as it aligns quite well with the traditional performance management processes discussed previously.

The sandwich method is very useful when we don’t give feedback often enough; so to make everyone feel better, (mostly ourselves) we start with the positive feedback, followed by the negative (which is really the intent of the feedback), and then more positive feedback to round it off.

The shifting landscape of feedback

Historically, feedback has been delivered as a one-way transmit of information from boss to employee however more contemporary views of feedback are that it is a conversation focused on building knowledge, rather than merely delivering information or providing direction.

Become confident in giving feedback

As our expectations around feedback in the workplace shift, so too must the ways in which deliver it.

It takes practice to become confident in providing feedback – especially when it requires corrective action. If you do need to work on this area as a leader, here are some considerations:

Start by giving more regular positive feedback. Be more deliberate of what you observe and give the feedback when things are done well – even the small things. Slowly you will find that as your team members respond to your positive reinforcement, they will feel more engaged and will be more open to receiving feedback on areas where improvement could be made.

Finally, continuous improvement is just that – the messaging for continuous improvement is not that we are underperforming or doing it wrong – it is about asking whether there is a better, smarter, safer way of doing it. Phrasing our conversations and feedback in this way will more likely create a culture of continuous improvement and high performance and not a culture of blame or silence.


Di Loong | Director