Motivating employees and getting consistent results are top management objectives, keeping small businesses moving in the right direction. There’s no shortage of recommendations for accomplishing these goals, originating from both experienced entrepreneurs and outside analysts, offering insight on professional performance. While many of their suggested strategies may be helpful, guiding fruitful interactions with staff, one universal formula stands out among others. The “velvet hammer” approach is well-suited for most interactions with employees.

Method both Kind and Direct

When engaging with staff, alienating team members or otherwise rubbing them wrong can have the opposite of your intended effect. As a result, sensitive news is sometimes shared with staff, following the long-applied “sandwich” method. The strategy starts by sharing something nice, or complimentary, followed by the actual bad news, which is then sandwiched with another piece of positive feedback.

While bookending not-so-good news with bits of better news may help soften the blow, the sandwich method actually provides more relief for the person delivering the feedback, than it does for the employee being engaged.

Sprout Funding logoAccording to Joy Baldridge, author of The Joy in Business: Innovative Ideas to Find Prosperity (and Profit) In Your Daily Work Life, interactions with employees grow uncomfortable when managers are forced to offer sensitive feedback about something a staff member did, or didn’t, do. Related communications with employees are irreversible, so tentative business owners and management team members often struggle, finding words that effectively drive home the intended message, without undermining the productive relationship.

Baldridge suggests the velvet hammer formula, which can be an effective tool, motivating staff in the right direction. The velvet hammer approach accounts for the potentially troublesome dynamic between owners/managers and staff, delivering the desired message, without unnecessarily aggravating the circumstances.

Balanced Delivery Helps Avoid Negative Ripple Effect

When feedback is not well-received by an employee, it can cause unintended consequences, stretching beyond the single staff member. Using strategies such as the sandwich method for delivering bad news can result in:

  • Lower Productivity
  • Increased Employee Sick Days
  • Acting Out on the Job
  • Employee Turnover

Author, Baldridge, suggests conflict avoidance is not the answer to vexing employee feedback crises. Rather than ignore matters needing attention, she insists the velvet hammer approach can be used to effectively convey meaningful messages, cloaked in a velvety soft delivery.

Follow the Feedback Formula

Baldridge’s nuanced velvet hammer formula starts with a statement such as, “Do you have a moment? I could use your help.” Combined with a friendly delivery, the disarming opening volley sets the correct tone for the interaction. ‘I need your help’ is an important inclusion, because it is a form of surrender, getting an employee’s attention, without putting the individual on the defensive. And it’s a truthful statement – the employee’s help is actually what will resolve the issue.

The next statement follows a format such as “I noticed a problem (be more specific). I wonder what’s causing the issue, because it can’t continue. What do you suggest we do to fix it?”

Baldridge identifies the word ‘because’ as one of the most persuasive available, sparking curiosity among listeners about what will follow it. It is purposefully included in the formula for that reason, as well as the portion of the statement asking the employee for suggestions resolving the issue. People are most readily persuaded by their own words, so eliciting their recommendations is an effective way to introduce remedies likely to influence their behavior.

Why It’s Effective

According to the author, the velvet hammer approach is designed to help managers find effective ways to communicate, inspire, and lead – particularly when problematic behavior is an issue. The strategy works better than some other feedback methods because it is:

  • Positive
  • Non-threatening
  • Compassionate
  • Open-minded

The good news-bad news-good news sandwich method is still used, but according to Baldridge is only embraced, because some managers are uncomfortable offering critical feedback. And it doesn’t work. The velvet hammer, on the other hand, is more like a verbal contract created with the employee, giving both parties an opportunity to improve on the job.

The language and tone used when sharing feedback are key factors, influencing its effectiveness, shaping employee behavior. Getting results with the velvet hammer approach relies on carefully selected language, but the message shouldn’t sound scripted. Rehearsing what you’re going to say before delivering the news can help refine your points, so the conversation goes as planned, without coming across as a canned speech.

Most small business leaders don’t look forward to delivering negative feedback. However, despite the prickly nature of sharing bad news, owners and managers owe it to their organizations to address problems in the workplace. Ignoring a personnel issue only gives the problem more time to take root, which can result in costlier consequences down the road. When sensitive matters need your attention, use the velvet hammer to drive home important messages, without undermining working relationships.

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