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2016 - make a resolution, or have resolve?

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox



I’ve never been one to make a long list of New Year’s resolutions. Mainly because it is so easy to fail at them – the lofty ideals we set at this time of the year; when we are looking back at the year that was and what we want to be different somehow in the coming year.   The only resolution I made in the past (which I have now stopped making) was that I would be ‘serene’ the next year.  I don’t think that is ever going to happen completely, but bit by bit I am learning.  Honestly.  Delegation appears to be key.

F0r 2016 I am quietly determined not to read the comments on public facebook pages or on twitter, and participate in the discussions.  I really don't need to participate in the outrage industry social media seems to breed these days and correcting grammar and spelling on the internet has lost its sparkle.

Resolutions are very different to goals made with resolve.  Goals can be broken down into achievable parts.  ‘I’m going to lose 12 kilos’ as a resolution often fails at the first hurdle when one hypothetically wakes up with a hangover on New Years’ Day unable to get off the couch to get any exercise. Yet having a goal of losing 12 kilos in the next 12 months can be broken down into losing 1 kilo a month, by exercising 5 days out of seven, by reducing your calorie intake so that output is higher than input and so on.  Possibly even giving up wine, if one was so inclined.   And every month that goes by and you see your goal reached is a mental tick in the box that you’re doing well.

And while resolutions come and go; resolve is easier to maintain, especially when you set yourself a goal and have a clear picture in your head, and written down on a piece of paper of what you want to achieve and how you are going to achieve it.

So think about your career and life goals for 2016, and how you are going to measure your success at achieving them.  Do you want a new client?  What steps do you need to take to win that work?  Then keep it?   Do you want to achieve a certain financial target?  What changes do you need to make to ensure that happens?  Do you want to move into a different area?  To whom do you need to speak?  Do you want start your own business?  Where are you going to start and who can help you?  Do you want to get a promotion?  How do you find out about the criteria and who makes the decision?  Do you need to make more time for yourself?  What has to change to make that happen? Do you need to give up control of some things?  What are you going to give up doing that has been distracting you?

Each of these questions is a whole blog post on its own, (especially the last two) but I want you to think about one important thing where we can all maintain resolve.

Is there a difficult conversation you have been putting off having with someone, whether it be a supervisor, colleague or junior employee?  If you are doing reruns in your head of what you could have, should have or would have said to someone, that is a sign that a difficult conversation needs to be had. Plan it, frame it, and have it.  Nothing changes unless you have those conversations – in particular the enormous space those thoughts are taking up in your head, and the energy expended in thinking about them.  If you are a manager of people one of the most important skills you can learn is how to have a difficult conversation.  I have yet to meet anyone who has dreaded a difficult conversation at work, but who has regretted finally having it, regardless of the outcome.

But back to the concept of serenity.  I will never be Princess Grace (assuming she was serene and not just faking it).   And most people with busy lives will have difficulty achieving serenity.   I am however learning to be mindful. And so can you.  I am day by day learning to focus my attention, to pause between tasks, and take a deep breath before moving on to the next one.  And so can you.  Trust me, it works.

And in 2016, let’s  all practice gratitude and kindness regularly ( have written about gratitude previously),  and be the person people look forward to seeing when they come to work.  Gratitude and kindness, however small the act, are never wasted.

Happy New Year everyone any may your 2016 be successful, whatever success means for you.



Why an external investigator?

Dispassionate objectivity is itself a passion, for the real and for the truth.

- Abraham Maslow

Many organisations, when faced with a complaint of bullying or sexual harassment, or other misconduct, elect to conduct the investigation ‘in-house’.  The ‘easy’ path is not necessarily the best one.  There are numerous examples of flawed or incomplete internal investigations resulting in criticisms from the Fair Work Commission and in some cases reinstatement following termination.  This, to be honest, is just awkward.

There are many advantages in engaging one:

  • Your internal resources may be stretched.  Investigations can be very time consuming and an external investigator can dedicate the necessary time and resources to get it completed in a timely way.
  • It is a stressful process for all involved — complainant, respondent and the witnesses, as well as other senior staff.  An external investigator can complete the investigation in a way that reduces the stress for the parties, and your internal HR team.
  • Investigations can have an enormous emotional impact on staff when they are conducted internally, when they know the people involved, as well as a strain on them intellectually, if they are not familiar with process and procedure.  External investigators are not emotionally invested in the outcome of the investigation, being engaged to investigate and report on the facts.  
  • An external investigator is completely impartial.  Without knowing the personalities of the people involved an external investigator brings no pre-conceived ideas or biases to the investigation.  This means it is likely to be perceived as a 'fairer' process.
  • Having an external investigator means that your HR Manager, or other senior staff member who would ordinarily conduct the investigation, is able to provide 'emotional scaffolding', if needed, to the staff involved.
  • The seniority of the people involved may require an external investigator.  If, for example, the complaint involves someone to whom your HR Manager reports, it is not appropriate for that person to conduct the investigation.
  • Perceptions of other staff can be more easily managed — internal investigations might be perceived as a ‘white wash’ or a ‘ticking boxes’ exercise, and looked upon with cynicism.  Bringing in an external investigator shows staff that management takes the issue seriously.
  • An external investigator is more experienced in conducting investigations and able to extract information others may not be able to.  Professional investigators are very used to the charmers, the silent aggressors, the blamers, the people who don’t want to be involved and the underminers, and know how to deal with them.
  • When an external investigator is engaged, it is unlikely to result in allegations of a lack of natural justice.
  • Where recommendations are called for, management can act on them, as advice from the Investigator.  This takes some pressure off management in terms of perceptions of staff in how the matter has been handled.

There is always a place for investigations to be conducted internally, but don’t under-estimate the value in having an external investigator deal with a difficult issue for you.


Lawyers and the ripple effect of poor work environments

It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver

- Mahatma Ghandi

A recent study by Dr Rebecca Michalak of PsychSafe, has shown that the legal profession has the lowest levels of health and well being of white collar workers, and that they are also the highest users of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.  In fact substance abuse is approximately double that of other white collar workers.  You can read a summary of her report here.

It is no secret that the very nature of the legal profession is inherently stressful — long working hours, the tyranny of time sheets and budgets, demanding clients, competition, and a pessimistic view of the world as a result of always having to look for the worst case scenario and plan for it, all contribute to stress, which over a long period of time cam lead to many health problems.  These health problems include many physical illnesses and also mental illnesses.

Sadly, substance abuse can be a by-product of mental health issues as those suffering from it attempt to self medicate, rather than admit to it.

Dr Michalak said that rather than teaching resilience, to cope with stress,  law firms needed to take proactive, preventative measures around the systemic failings and work environments to prevent it happening at all.

I agree with Dr Michalak - at present the legal profession has almost double the rate of mental health diagnoses as the general population.  This is a systemic issue not a personal one.

Disturbingly, her report also found that:

Lawyers were also more likely than other professionals to be exposed to toxic behaviour in the workplace, including verbal abuse, mistreatment, bullying, competition, and destabilisation from colleagues, as well as sexual harassment

The ripple effect of poor work practices and environments is large, and getting bigger.


World Kindness Day in the workplace

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

- Jean Jacques Rousseau

Friday 13 November 2015 is World Kindness Day.  This day is part of a World Kindness Movement (WKM) that started at a conference in Japan almost 20 years ago.

The mission of the WKM is "to inspire individuals towards greater kindness and to connect nations to create a kinder world".

This is the WKM on a macro level - changing the world.  We can, however, all make a difference by practising kindness every day and on this day, consciously practising kindess in the workplace.  Imagine if we could change the world by changing one workplace at a time.

Kindness does not have to be a grand gesture.  Nor does is have to cost money.  Kindness can be a small gesture, genuinely made.  Some of the simplest acts of kindness in the workplace are:

  • holding a door open
  • offering to make someone a cup of tea
  • answering someone's phone and taking a message
  • offering to get extra materials from the stationery room
  • keeping the lift doors open when you see someone rushing to catch the lift
  • remembering colleague's birthdays and acknowledging them
  • taking an interest in peoples' interests
  • showing genuine empathy to someone who is upset

Empathy is one of the best character traits to have - it makes the practice of kindness easy.  And authentic.  Practising kindness because you 'have to' is emotionally exhausting.  Authenticity is essential.

The really good news about kindness, however is twofold.  First,  is that is is contagious.  We take our cues from other people.   When we witness or experience someone showing us kindness, we experience something called moral elevation - an emotion we experience after witnessing an act of kindness, compassion, understanding or forgiveness.  We are more likely to be kind and helpful ourselves in that state.  If leaders show kindness, their employees are also more likely to do so.

Secondly, practising kindness gives another person the opportunity to express gratitude,  a very underrated virtue.  In turn, having someone say 'thank you' gives us a good feeling and also increases the well being of the person expressing it.

When you think about it, kindness creates a giant warm circle of happiness.  What's not to like?



Belle Gibson - the art of attention seeking

God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another

- Shakespeare

Belle Gibson, the now disgraced ‘social media entrepreneur’ has become the poster girl for deceit on a large scale in Australia. 

Last night on 60 Minutes, Tara Brown interviewed her, to try and get answers out of Ms Gibson as to how, and why, she managed to deceive so many people for so long, about her cancer diagnosis and recovery, through diet and in particular whole foods.  Ms Gibson made millions out of  a cookbook and an App developed from her cookbook.  Worse, she convinced many people to ignore the advice of oncologists and traditional medical intervention on the basis of her miraculous recovery.  You can see the interview here.  It is clear from the whole fiasco that Ms Gibson is a chronic liar and shameless attention seeker. I still can't believe how few people called Belle Gibson's version of events into question - the whole sorry saga could have easily been prevented.  Sadly, like every other narcissist, Ms Gibson blames everyone but herself for the situation in which she now finds herself.

This is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence and also occurs in employment relationships.

On a smaller scale, I have twice now investigated employees who have been suspected of faking cancer for both sympathy, and to avoid performance management.  I still say ‘suspected’ because in both cases, the employee resigned before formal performance management commenced, although many years later they are both still very much alive and healthy.

In investigating this type of issue it is important to tread lightly.  While suspicions are aroused for any number of reasons, the truth is that the employee may be terribly ill, in one way or another.   However in both of these cases the following issues arose:

  • Performance was not at the expected level for the role and this continued for a significant period of time
  • The employee was under 30 years of age
  • The employee had regular ‘dramatic’ events in life, not related to health, requiring their absence from work, and garnering a great deal of sympathy
  • The employee was considered to be very ‘brave’ in coming to work when so ill, and gained sympathy and attention from colleagues, making management of the employee difficult.  In one case, other employees had organised fund raising activities for the ‘sick’ employee, as well as home cooked meals
  • The investigation started because the ill health suddenly became dramatically worse when performance issues were raised – in one case, cancer which had been in remission for a number of years, suddenly returned as a secondary cancer
  • The employee refused to allow me to obtain a report from their treating oncologist as the effect of performance management on their treatment and health.  Neither would tell me the name of the treating oncologist, notwithstanding that every other facet of their illness had been freely and embarrassingly shared with other in the workplace
  • Lengthy research had to be done in relation to common treatment regimes for the particular cancers which bore little resemblance to the treatment the employees said they had, or were, undergoing
  • The employee had gone to great lengths to look sick during work hours (including shaved heads and scarves)  yet social media accounts (which were not private) showed them to be enjoying busy social lives which also included heavy drinking and smoking – when challenged as to absence from work on a Monday the reason given was usually treatment rather than a hangover
  • An examination of email and work provided mobile phone records proved the employees had lied about their whereabouts at times of medical appointments or other events requiring their absence from work, including occasions when compassionate leave had been granted
  • The employee resigned when asked to respond to issues raised with them


I suspect this was a pattern of behaviour -  leaving their employment when the deceit was discovered and probably starting the deceit again.  It should be noted, however, that at no stage was an allegation put to the employee about having 'faked' being sick. The allegations were about lying about other events related to their employment, but in also asking for details of their treating oncologist, each will have known that suspicions had been raised.

Following their departure from the organisations, further investigations revealed other instances of deceit involving credit, taxi vouchers and various other work related benefits.

The level of hurt and anger in those organisations when the level of the deception was uncovered cannot be described.  Staff who had been through treatment for cancer or who had lost a loved one to cancer were among those who had provided support.

Sadly, I believe in one of these cases the employee was psychiatrically ill, but in the other the employee was no more than a narcissistic attention seeker, who was a chronic liar!  I don’t know if either sought help, but the most important lesson from this for me was to trust my instincts.  I thought something was not quite right from a short time after their employment commenced.

For employers, as with all investigations, policies which allow workplace investigators to review email correspondence and phone records for work provided mobile phones are vital to uncovering the truth.  Unlike most workplace investigations which involve allegations made by one person against another,  this type of investigation requires a slow and steady approach, particularly as the employee may be seriously ill.



Performance management - A coaching mindset

Creating problems is easy.  We do it all the time.  Finding solutions, ones that last and produce good results, requires guts and care.

Henry Rollins 

I recently spoke at an ALPMA (Australasian Legal Practice Management Association) seminar on the subject of Managing performance through a coaching mindset.  It is a novel concept for some supervisors.  

Performance management is a term that is thrown around a lot and is mostly seen as a negative term, and one that strikes fear into the hearts of those on the receiving end  - the penultimate act before termination of employment. A bit like going into the departure lounge at the airport prior to getting on a plane to go somewhere else - without the excitement of a new destination or the drinks at the bar.

I view the words slightly differently in the sense that managing performance is something that needs to be done with all staff – even your star performers – to make sure you are getting the best out of them, and that they are engaged and committed to your goals and the firm goals, and achieving their own goals as well. 

And this requires ongoing coaching and mentoring of staff, and treating staff as individuals rather than an amorphous group of people with the same skills, attitude and mindset. 

However, in the context of poor performance, performance management is a process which is often used as a ‘first resort’ rather than a last one, where there is perceived under performance – and the news often comes as a surprise to the employee being told they are not performing.    This is largely because those difficult conversations  when performance issues are first noticed, have not been had, for whatever reason.

There are many causes of poor performance or perceived poor performance.  I use the word 'perceived' deliberately  because it is sometimes one person’s perception and not another’s.  However, a coaching mindset can alleviate performance issues before they become insurmountable problems.

Coaching helps to lift the employee’s performance and increase the likelihood that the performance will meet or exceed your expectations. Coaching sessions provide you and the employee the opportunity to discuss progress toward meeting agreed standards and objectives. 

Some of the common causes of under-performance include:

  • expectations not being communicated - you cannot expect employees to provide exceptional or consistent performance if the stage has not be set for them to be successful.  Talk about what your expectations are, what you or your clients want from them.
  • Comparison - are you really comparing apples with apples?  I have lost count of the number of times I have seen employees set up to fail because a numebr of years ago someone else performed better.  Think about what the person is doing and what the expectations are for that role.  Are you being fair?
  • Promotion comes with a new set of responsibilities - has your promoted employee been given any direction as to what is expected of them?  Have they been performing above expectations and now flailing?  How can you help with a coaching approach?
  • Fear of failure - this fear is very real for some people, and can cause professional paralysis.  Is your employee avoiding taking on more responsibility or only doing things they know they will succeed at?  This will limit their potential, and you can help
  • Mental health issues – most people hide a diagnosis for fear of being judged harshly and the effort of dealing with a mental health diagnosis as well as trying to maintain their work performance will ultimately cause problems

  • Recruitment not meeting reality - have you over or under sold the position and is this affecting the employee's ability to perform?

A coaching mindset - one where you commit to challenging your employee to improve performance, and where you don't shy away from having a difficult conversation- will not only support your employee but will ultimately improve your own skills and the bottom line.

Coaching is not a disciplinary process (nor should performance management be, strictly speaking).

It has to be made clear to the employee that the process is coaching with the intention of assisting the employee to grow and develop,  not formal performance management – the coach needs to understand their role is to guide and challenge the employee to improve; not discipline the employee as a supervisor.

In order to coach effectively it is important to do and be some things.  Coaching is coaching but in a work environment,  the coach is also the supervisor there are some things that need to be done differently than would be done with an external coach.  There is not the objectivity that there would be with an external coach, and the supervisor as coach has more than the usual interest in making the employee succeed.  It is more personal for the supervisor.  

It is very easy to try and ‘fix’ things for the employee by telling them what to do or rescuing them; a coach however has to help the employee work that out for themselves.  

Coaching is a skill that can be learned -just as employees might need help to improve their performance, so too might supervisors need help to become better at coaching.  But the right mindset at the outset will work wonders with management of performance. 






Inclusive behaviour may prevent bullying claims

There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.

-Pablo Picasso

In my work, I am often appointed as an independent investigator in relation to complaints of workplace behaviour – most often these are bullying complaints and occasionally sexual harassment.    Complaints of sexual  harassment are often difficult because without witnesses it is usually a case of ‘he said, she said’.  Occasionally there will be a ‘smoking gun’.

In relation to bullying, these cases are difficult for entirely different reasons.  I often say that ‘bullying is in the eye of the beholder’.  What might be perceived as bullying by one person would not bother another.  Regardless of the sensitivities of the complainant, bullying claims all have to be investigated in light of the relevant legislative definitions, which involve what is meant to be an objective test but is in fact the very subjective test of reasonableness.

A few things have been made clear over the course of my work in this area, combined with the work I have done with Diversity Partners recently in relation to inclusive leadership.  Inclusion is about how people feel at work, and it is possible to bully by exclusion.  So the very behaviours that go with being an inclusive leader can also help prevent  a bullying claim.

We often attribute certain behaviours to a person rather than a situation they are in.  I can recall starting a new school in year 6 – it was a small school and I started in the middle of a term. There were 16 eleven year olds in the class before I joined.  Binna Kandola talks about the effects of ‘In Groups’ and ‘Out Groups’ in his book ‘The Value of Difference:  Eliminating Bias in Organisations' and I was very much a one girl member of the out group that year.  That group of students made me feel isolated, strange, different and unwelcome.  I can recall walking into the classroom and they were looking at my report card from my previous school which had been on the teacher’s desk, and one of them said ‘you must think you’re really smart’.  I said nothing.  I was very quiet and tried to physically shrink in the classroom.  After a while I became angry and my natural extraversion kicked in and I started fighting back verbally.  This made it worse of course.

I was then labelled arrogant, rude, and bitchy.

Did I feel bullied?  Absolutely.  Did they intend to make me feel like that?  Probably not. 

Children of course don’t think as adults – but imagine the above scenario in a work situation.  A new team member starts, and feels excluded, different.  She sees the team members looking at her CV or performance review documents and making snarky comments.  She goes quiet then gets angry.  Does she feel bullied? Absolutely.  Did they intend to make her feel like that?  Probably not.  But the potential for a bullying claim is there.

Had this behaviour been properly attributed to the situation and NOT the person, the result would have been entirely different.  Had those school children or the team members chosen to think and act inclusively, the situation would never have deteriorated.  So think about your behaviour – are you acting inclusively?  Are you inviting this person to be involved, getting to know them, asking how they are getting on, offering to help with the new environment and introducing them to the people they need to know?

Inclusive behaviour, along with reflection on your communication style, will go a long way to preventing a bullying claim

Prioritise performance discussions

The role of leadership is to transform the complex into small pieces and prioritise them.


Carlos Ghosn


Last year a client confided in me that he felt awful because during the course of a firm merger, one of his staff was considered surplus to the requirements of the merged organisation. It transpired, however, that the reason was that the financial performance of the person concerned was, and had been, poor - for the best part of five years. It is always a risk being brutally honest with clients but in this case it was warranted. I said to the client - 'don't feel awful about it now - you should feel awful for not dealing with it five years ago when it was first a problem.' In avoiding a difficult conversation he had denied that employee the opportunity to improve, or move on and find somewhere that suited him.


No one likes confrontation, or difficult conversations. Even those experienced in having them don't enjoy it, or even welcome it - and frankly if the day comes that as a practitioner in either HR or general management you don't get anxious about it or feel some level of sympathy for the employee, then it is time to move on to another job. Empathy is a vital ingredient in having difficult conversations.

Honesty is always the best policy - as long as it is constructive honesty. Feedback that is given in a genuine way, with the focus on what can be done to improve the situation, will more often than not resolve the problem. Especially if the employee suggests ways to improve. Not talking about it means that the person with the behavioural issue of concern remains blissfully unaware of it. Feedback which is not constructive and just a long list of someone's failings is not conducive to remedial behaviour.

If you are conducting what I call 'replays' in your head, of conversations you imagine having with an employee over performance concerns, then that is a sign that you actually have to have that conversation.

Prioritise it. Plan it. And Practise it. You will be surprised at what can be achieved.

Workplace Conflict Resolution 101

If you want to bring an end to long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Very few workplaces are conflict free.  Everyone is different in some way — the way we think, act, and react is often different to that of others.  Our perceptions of things that are said can vary from not only what is said but the intention of what is being said.  Communication breakdowns because of this are very common.

I am often asked to assist in mediating between two employees who have been experiencing conflict.  Often, it has been an ongoing problem for a while so that the problem, whatever it was originally, is forgotten and it is just two people who can’t ‘get on’.  The word 'personality clash' is then used to describe what is actually a communication clash.

As an external consultant, the skills I use to assist in resolving this tension and conflict are skills that you can learn.  Here are some quick tips:

Know your role

The role of a mediator is not to solve the problem (tempting as it might be!).  The role of the mediator is to help the people involved resolve the conflict, in a collaborative way, themselves.

Be prepared

Find out as much detail about the issue and the people involved as you can before attempting to mediate.  Talk to both people separately, getting an idea of their major concerns, what they are prepared to compromise on, what, if anything, they can see from the other person’s perspective.  And plan, as far as possible, how the meeting will go.

Be impartial

This is particularly important if you know and work with both parties — you might know one more than the other, work more closely with one than the other. One person may be a senior manager and the other a junior employee so a perceived power imbalance, if you too, are a senior manager, can lead to perceived impartiality.  Perceptions of lack of impartiality will cause a mediation to fail before it even starts.

Agree ground rules, or what I call 'terms of engagement'

When you bring both parties together, set and agree ground rules, including:

  • The role of the mediator is not to dictate solutions, but to encourage the parties to find their own
  • Confidentiality – keep the matters discussed between the parties, subject to the mediator discussing the resolution with HR or management
  • One person to speak at a time — no interruptions
  • Each person is to be truthful about their concerns and willingness to find resolution
  • Active listening — each party is to listen to what the other person is saying
  • Don’t use pronouns ('he', 'she').  Use each other’s names at all times
  • If voices are raised the mediator will ask the person speaking to stop, take a deep breath and speak calmly
  • Avoid blaming language

Finding a solution

Finding a solution can be easy when two people talk calmly together, but is often not. Each party will have their own view of events and the relationship breakdown.  When listening, ask questions to find common ground.  The mediator must give each person the chance to speak openly and honestly, and without judgement, while at the same time ensuring that both parties avoid blame and accusations, and accept responsibility for their part in the problem. Find out if they can see the issue from the other person’s perspective.  After they have both spoken find out what they can agree on.  There might be many things, there may be few.  But if it is looking like few, try and find one.  Even if it is both that they enjoy working for the organisation, that is a good place to start.  You’ll be surprised once one piece of common ground is found how it can lead to others.

Compromise is essential — especially when it seems they are poles apart.  The trick is to bring their perceptions closer together.

Remember people are more likely to stick to a resolution to a problem if they come up with the solution themselves. A mediation conducted well will also rebuild trust between the parties and their trust in the organisation, having been supported in this way.

Follow up

Once agreement on a way forward is reached, it is vital that you check in with both parties to make sure it is working and that both are sticking to their side of the bargain.



10 easy ways to show gratitude

Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude.  Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness.  Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.

Henri Frederic Amiel

I have written before on the subject of gratitude and how important it is in the workplace.

Here are 10 simple and easy ways to show the people you work with how much you appreciate them:

  1. Say thank you. Look them in the eye and say thank you.

  2. Leave a surprise post it note on their desk or computer.

  3. For a team thank you, organise a cake for morning tea one day.

  4. Make someone a tea or coffee without asking them.

  5. Tell someone else, in your staff member's hearing, what a great job they did.

  6. Start an ABCD club — awards (monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, whatever works for you) for staff who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

  7. Start a seasonal tradition and have a small celebration.  Or a big one.

  8. Celebrate big wins or good jobs for clients and customers with the whole team and make a big deal about the fact that it is a thank you to the team effort not celebrating the fee or profit.

  9. If someone has been working longer than normal hours, surprise them with a 'get out of jail free' card to leave early one day.

  10. Start a tradition for those with children starting school for the first time that they can either have the day off or work reduced hours that day.

These are just a few simple ideas to help make your staff feel valued, appreciated, and most importantly, engaged.  But the possibilities are endless!



Tears and Tantrums

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now

Julius Caesar

I have previously given some tips on how to give effective feedback .  In giving constructive feedback and in a formal performance appraisal there are some situations that need special attention and require special skills.  Leaders and managers know that the ability to have a difficult discussion is crucial to not only their success but also the success of the business.  In this post and the next I will deal with some of those difficult emotional responses.

No one likes receiving what he or she perceives to be negative feedback, regardless of how well it is planned and presented.  So you need to anticipate an emotional response if negative feedback is to be given.  And that emotional response can come in a variety of ways.

Whatever the reaction, it is vital to the successful conclusion of the conversation to:

  • keep your own emotions in check;
  • not take the reaction or any comments personally and try and remember they are a result of built up tension or anxiety;
  • listen – mindful listening  assists with positive expressions. Let the person express the emotion first by showing you are willing to listen without interrupting
  • validate people’s feelings if you can, by showing empathy.  For example, ‘I understand this is difficult for you – let’s work on a way to get back on track’, or ‘ I understand you’re upset – I’m going to give you a moment to calm down so we can continue’

Here are some specific situations and how best to deal with them



There are two types of people who cry when given negative feedback.  There is the person who, for what may be any number of reasons, is genuinely upset, and then there is the person who is able to turn on the tears for effect and sympathy.  In my years of working with people I have become very aware of peoples’ various idiosyncrasies (good and bad), and believe me when I say that there are those who will cry to avoid or derail a performance discussion.

Regardless of the situation,  pause, and find tissues! A clever person who thinks someone might cry will have tissues at the ready. It is also useful to offer to get a glass of water as this can allow time for the person to regain their composure..

If someone is genuinely distressed, for reasons outside the appraisal or work, then I do suggest rescheduling for another time.  This is one of the few times I suggest this.  For example, if the person is upset because a relative has died, or has been diagnosed with a serious illness (or they themselves are not well), then they are not going to be in a position to discuss things in a rational way.  They may have been keeping their emotions in check at work, and this has allowed them to to let the tears flow.  It is one of the few times I would recommend allowing the discussion to be rescheduled.  In doing so, you are allowing them to recover from their embarrassment, and take some of the emotion out of the discussion.  You are also showing that you care.

If however someone becomes upset either as a means to derail the discussion, or to try and attract sympathy, it is important to continue the discussion.  As before, pause, offer a tissue and a glass of water, express empathy and suggest that when they are ready you can continue.  And sit patiently waiting for that moment to come.  I have been in a room with one such person who looked up at me through her tears and said ‘aren’t you going to say something?’ to which I responded ‘I’m just waiting for you to stop crying’.  Some might call that harsh, but it had the desired effect – she realised I knew she was putting it on, knew she couldn’t get out of the discussion, and so we carried on.


If the person you are talking to reacts angrily -  stay calm yourself.  There is a little part of the brain called the amygdala  which causes very emotional responses to perceived threats.  It hijacks the rational thinking part of the brain.  This is useful when there is actually a physical threat; not so much in a performance appraisal.  So the person you are talking to is having that happen to them.  Don’t mirror them and respond angrily by allowing your amygdala to hijack your own brain.  This will escalate the problem into an unresolvable argument and most likely an argument that bears no relation to the discussion at hand.

So if your employee becomes angry, stay calm.  Allow the anger to be expressed,  even – and this is important – if it involves a personal, verbal,  attack on you.  If you do respond, keep your voice low, slow , and controlled.  Oftentimes a calm response will calm the angry person.

Acknowledge the emotion they are experiencing (empathy again)  eg ‘I understand why this might make you angry’ , wait for person to finish, and restart the conversation.

In both examples, it is important to ensure the conversation comes back to the performance issue and a solutions focussed resolution.

And remember – it is a tough job sometimes being a manager of people.  Give yourself a pat on the back when you have successfully  concluded a difficult performance appraisal.



Top tips on giving constructive feedback at performance appraisals

It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises but only performance is reality

Harold S Geneen


For some organisations it is coming up to end of year performance appraisals. Both sides of the desk tend to dread performance appraisals with good reason if there is a history of poor execution of the discussion.  Here are some tips for managers for a successful performance appraisal discussion.

Before completing the appraisal document keep these common problems in mind for the ratings scale:


  • Halo Effect: This is the tendency (or bias) to rate a person who is exceptionally strong in one area, high in all other areas. Particularly when the area in which they are strong is important to you personally
  • Horns Effect: This is of course the opposite of the Halo Effect – a tendency to rate a person who is especially weak in one factor, low on all other factors.
  • Middle of the Road:  This is where a manager avoids both high and low extremes, rating someone  in the middle category, for example a ‘3’ on a 1-5 scale.
  • Mini Me: Some managers have a tendency to give higher ratings to employees who are similar to them.
  • Easy road: This is where managers are aware that the employee has rated themselves highly, the manager disagrees but moves their own rating up higher to avoid a difficult discussion.

In conducting the appraisal, keep these things in mind:

  • Venue – make it private, and allow sufficient time to cover off all the issues.
  • Make sure you have read the appraisal document first!  Preparation is very important particularly where constructive feedback is required.
  • Review any previous appraisals prior to the meeting.
  • Obtain feedback from others if relevant, for example if your employee has worked in another division, ask for feedback from their previous supervisors
  • Prepare your discussion – make sure you have a list of specific things you want covered off, and examples,  to give your employee.
  • Allow your employee to speak about their views
  • Talk through the appraisal document from start to finish and openly discuss any differences in perception

If it is largely a ‘good news’ appraisal:

  • Congratulate your employee on their achievements to date and talk through some agreed goals for the next 6-12 months
  • Allow them to talk about their personal goals
  • Make sure any goals set are both specific and achievable
  • For top performers, suggest stretch goals, particularly if they are keen to be promoted or moved into a different area
  • Ensure that behavioural issues, if any, are covered off regardless of financial or other achievements - be careful about the message you are sending if financial and other targets are met but behavioural issues affecting others are an issue and not dealt with


For appraisals that require giving constructive feedback, frame the conversation carefully:

  • You want the employee to become Aware of the performance issue, Accept the issue and agree to Action to remedy the situation - the Triple A of performance management.
  • Staff will accept feedback if the person offering it is reliable and has good intentions and the process is fair (eg make sure you have concrete examples, and give them the opportunity to express their views).
  • Start with positive feedback – what they do well, and often, and that they should keep doing it.
  • Move to constructive feedback – but frame it as what they could do better if possible.
  • Ensure the clarity of your message – plan what the message will be.
  • Use examples from your own experience or feedback from others.  Make sure you do have examples – they are critical to the success of the discussion.
  • Explain the impact of the behaviour or skill level on colleagues or the business.
  • Echo back their concerns about the feedback, show empathy then…
  • Ask for acknowledgement.
  • Check their understanding and willingness to accept the feedback – give the employee time to think and respond, & provide action strategies if they don't come up with any.  People are more willing to accept and commit to a solution if they suggest it themselves
  • Set goals for improvement, or agree a solution to the problem
  • Agree on a time frame, and regular check ins on progress
  • Don’t ‘sandwich’ feedback with more good news as this is confusing and may give mixed messages, particularly if all they remember is the last thing you said.  But do end on a positive note eg, certainty the employee can improve, offer of support to achieve goals. 


Ending the appraisal

  • Be brave enough to ask for feedback on your own performance as a manager generally or on the conduct of the appraisal



CYA - Manage performance, but don't leave yourself open to a bullying claim

'There's a fine line between character building and soul destroying'

Colin Hay

In my line of work I have seen and investigated far too many genuine cases of bullying, and have witnessed the effects this has on the victims of it.  I have also seen far too many disingenuous claims, used as a tactic against a manager for various reasons, but usually when a manager has been addressing performance issues.   Regardless of the outcome, an investigation into bullying or workplace harassment is very stressful for all involved.  So of course the easy solution is — don't be a bully, and even if you're not, don't set yourself up for a bullying claim.

So if you are a manager of people, experienced or not, and you need to address some performance issues with one of your staff, how do you avoid a bullying claim when you genuinely want only the best for your employee and the business?  I have previously give some 'how to' tips in relation to giving effective feedback here .  Given that the definition of bullying is that it is repeated unreasonable behaviour etc, there should be no confusion between  the process of managers or supervisors giving feedback on performance, and bullying. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Unfortunately, bullying is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and there is nothing to STOP a claim being made regardless of the merits.  So how best to protect yourself?

First of all there is a difference between giving general performance feedback and formal performance management.  Giving feedback on an employee's performance should be regular.  And it should be often, especially if it is positive feedback. Positive feedback builds confidence and engagement. Oftentimes people tell me they only get feedback when they've done something wrong or at their annual performance review.  Annual reviews should be seen as an opportunity to record a formal discussion and set goals, and there should be no surprises for the employee if regular feedback has been given. Performance management is of course more serious — where you need a fundamental change in order for someone's employment to continue. 

There are a number of ways to reduce the risk of a bullying claim following or during the process of performance feedback or management in any form.  Essentially, put yourself in the shoes of the employee and see things from their perspective. Little things can add up to big trouble for you, especially where nuances of behaviour or perceptions come into play.

Regardless of whether it is general performance feedback or performance management, document all discussions, whatever the behaviour that needs improving; big issue or relatively minor.  I call this 'CYA' or 'Cover your Arse'.  You never know when a conversation, combined with other events, can come back to bite you!

Keep it confidential.  Other than having a confidential discussion with your own supervisor, if you have one, never discuss it with another employee.  Small things and changes in behaviour can lead to unwarranted perceptions on the part of the employee.

Don't try to soften the blow, by, for example suggesting you go for a coffee, or have a chat.  Be clear about what the conversation is going to be about, to avoid allegations that the employee was unable to prepare or was 'ambushed'.  If it is the first time you have had to speak to them, make sure they understand they have the opportunity to come back to you at a later stage if they want to address any issues.  This is particularly important if you are dealing with an introvert. Introverts need time to process their thoughts and may wish to have the opportunity to address your concerns after they have had a chance to think about the feedback they have been given.  So be alert to an employee who sits there in silence.  You may well go back to your office, breathing a sigh of relief,  thinking 'so that went well' while your employee is seething with resentment.

Give the employee an opportunity to come up with solutions to the problem themselves, rather than necessarily dictating them.  They are far more likely to be engaged in the process of improvement if they themselves have thought of ways to improve.

Beware of  your body language after the discussion - I know it can be uncomfortable having had a difficult discussion, but if your employee perceives you to be behaving differently afterwards, this can add to any negative feelings they may have towards you.  Related to this — keep an eye on other team members' behaviour as well.  If they know or suspect a colleague has been having performance discussions, they may change their behaviour, and avoid eye contact or any contact at all, just due to discomfort with the situation.  

Don't try to make it easy for them, even if you feel some sympathy for them, by taking work away from them without discussing it first.  If they suddenly feel like they are being excluded from certain work, or opportunities, not included in emails and so on,  a small resentment can easily develop into a view that 'they're trying to get rid of me'.

Don't suddenly start micro managing the employee — again this will lead to a perception that they are being watched, picked on, etc.

And whatever you do, do not, ever, lose your temper with that person.  While being angry once in a blue moon is certainly not bullying in any definition, and perfectly understandable from time to time, combined with all of the above, it will form of a bullying claim.

Many different behaviours, taken together, rather than in isolation, are likely to form the basis of a bullying claim given that there has to be a 'repeated behaviour' to establish a claim — make sure your intentions are genuine, and your own behaviour is beyond reproach.  If a bullying claim is made, regardless of merit, you will need to be able to answer all allegations.

Most good workplace behaviour policies and the new legislation have a definition of what bullying is NOT - reasonable management action conducted in a reasonable way.  So while discussing performance issues is of course reasonable management action, it must also be conducted in a reasonable way.  Shouting, banging the desk, swearing, telling someone they're useless, excluding them from work opportunities, ignoring them, is NOT reasonable and a bullying claim is likely to be proven.

There is no definition of what is reasonable in these circumstances and there will be cases no doubt that will define it or give examples of it.  The easiest test is: Ask yourself — how would I like to be treated in this situation?  That's usually the best test of reasonableness.  



Giving effective feedback

"The more feedback you give to people, the better it is, as long as the feedback is objective and not critical"

- Brian Tracy

We all know the feeling. Someone in your office, or on your team, is not performing to expectations. It might be how they answer the phone, deal with clients or suppliers. They might not be pulling their weight, not keeping filing up to date. Or there may be more serious performance issues. It could be any one of a number of things. It starts off as a bit annoying. You think it will get better - they'll work it out. Then it becomes more annoying or the behaviour actually gets worse. It is starting to affect other people in the office - not just the particular issue, but soon staff are complaining loudly that you're not dealing with it. How do you overcome the very natural aversion to conflict or having a difficult conversation?

This article will give you tips on how to have that difficult conversation you would rather not have. It will not deal with formal performance management, which will be the subject of another article.

  • First of all, remind yourself that performance issues don't get better on their own. If staff are not aware there is a problem they will assume they are doing the right thing. In fact, if not addressed, the problem often becomes worse.
  • Check up on your own concerns about confronting the issue. Ask yourself 'What's the worst that can happen'. They might become upset, angry or completely shut down. If you're prepared for the worst, then anything else is easy to deal with. If you are also the sort of person that likes to be liked, acknowledge that - but also acknowledge that you can still be likeable if you deal with a difficult issue in a professional, and empathetic way.
  • Make it timely - address it early, and preferably close to an example of the problem behaviour. For example if a staff member is required to complete a particular task on a particular day each week, and regularly misses it, address it at the next opportunity. If a piece of work submitted to you is not satisfactory, think about how you will have the discussion and address it promptly - don't wait a week.
  • Get the geography right. Never give constructive or negative feedback in front of others. If possible, try not to have the discussion across a desk as this can impede an open conversation. Even better, if you can get out of the office altogether, it takes some of the office tension away, and also relieves the staff member of any embarrassment. You would be surprised how mush easier one of these conversations is, being done over a coffee, or by going for a walk.
  • If you are able to, give positive feedback to the staff member about their performance first. Feedback given in an environment of trust, with good intentions, where the employee feels valued, is much more likely to be accepted.
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person. Make sure they understand the impact the behaviour has on others, you, or the business.
  • Make sure you have some concrete examples or feedback from others to support your views.
  • Frame the conversation beforehand - be very clear in your own mind about the result you want to achieve. No one likes receiving negative feedback, and sometimes the recipient will derail the conversation with excuses, blame or denial (more about that in future articles). So it's a good idea, to be very clear in your own mind about how the conversation will start and progress to the result you need, which is the staff member accepting the problem and committing to making some changes. No matter how often you find yourself going off on a tangent, come back to the main issue.
  • Be empathetic if they become upset but firm in the need for improvement, e.g. 'I know this must be difficult for you, but ultimately this is an important issue that needs improvement and I'm confident that can be achieved'.
  • Check their understanding of the issues before ending on a positive note, ie, expressing confidence in their ability to improve. Don't give more positive feedback, as this can be confusing and dilute the message. But it is ok to be positive in closing the conversation, eg 'you're a valuable employee, and I'm sure that now you're aware of our expectations, you will continue to improve'.
  • Be open to taking some feedback yourself - ask if there is anything you, or anyone else in the team, can do to help the situation. It may be that something you are doing or the way the job is structured, is not helping them.
  • Agree to follow up again in a specific timeframe and if improvements are noticed, make sure that is acknowledged in a timely way, even before any formal meeting.

Coming up in future articles - how to deal with objections, the benefits of positive feedback, formal performance appraisals, and performance management.