Have we lost the art of conversation?

Colin Dulson, Managing Director, Berrison

Effective employee feedback is crucial for business, and in a fast-changing culture, SMEs need to ensure their appraisals systems – and the skills to run them – are up to date and relevant for all the different generations at work. Colin Dulson, MD at Berrison looks at the merits of the ‘debate versus data’ argument, for garnering employee engagement

Times have changed – there are now five generations in the workforce* – and by next year, millennials are expected to make up half. HR systems and approaches have quite rightly changed drastically over the years, as the needs of these different employees change. Annual appraisals have been replaced with more fluid, two way continuous management systems, which are much more suitable to the younger generations, known to be less concerned with financial gain and seeking different challenges and rewards.

We have watched the rise of Big Data, as we add individual people-data to wider organisational information, using social and correspondence observations alongside traditional training and tracking. Technology has meant that numbers are now the narrative and data does allow us to make more educated decisions in HR, giving feedback to our team that involves a whole range of metrics and mathematical analyses, with deeper insights and more informed decision-making.

But does this actually provide the right format for appraisals and HR? Younger generations are looking for more trust, more training and more autonomy. Would we therefore be better to engage more with our staff and go back to our guts? Nice conversation over number-crunching?

Addressing the full story
Traditionally, appraisals are seen as a tool for developing the individual – and run effectively, they are also an opportunity for the business to gather feedback and ideas to support business planning. Data, currently, does not – and cannot – tell the full story. If we rely on it too much, we lose our inclination to debate and discuss.

Increasingly flexible working environments add pressure and reduce the opportunities for ongoing engagement, so instead of using qualitative, organic feedback, SMEs tend to use data as a speedy safety net. The ability to reflect is left out of any appraisal or decision-making process, career paths are mapped out by numbers and think-space is killed.

Quality data is needed as part of the process to arrive at clear decisions, but a decision, by its very nature, comes from options. The importance of the decision and discussion in a working environment is not just the outcome: it is the process that is taken to reach that decision.
Allowing your team to be part of that process gives them autonomy. Millennials want to feel valued: Asking “What shall we do?” is not a weakness; it shows strength and respect for your team. Employees don’t want to be dictated to and overuse of data means we ignore conversation and gut instinct (which, ultimately, is data: processed through our previous experiences).

So what is the solution?
In some ways, it’s looking back at the way we used to do things. It is incredibly important to ensure your team feels like a team, regardless of flexi-time and diverse employee locations. Social activities need to be regular, managers need to have team meetings without agendas, ‘walking the floor’ needs to supplement formal, data-driven formalities.

Leave the numbers in the first instance and take the time to ‘chew over’ your gut instincts. Argue, assess and debate all outcomes with your team, before taking the data into consideration. It will hopefully back up the plan you have made – and if not, then the time you have spent discussing things is still time very well spent.

*KPMG 2017