Giving a lawyer a critique of their work can be difficult. Yet, you cannot improve lawyer performance or achieve quality work product goals without providing feedback. I provide below the 9 essential elements for giving effective feedback.
I often had to talk to lawyers about their performance, whether positive or negative, when I was General Counsel at the USPTO. The lawyers at the USPTO are the best attorneys that I have had the privilege to manage. They are a dedicated group who enjoy their work.
In a nutshell, they are not a management challenge. Yet, I was required to talk to them about their performance and to both let them know how much they were appreciated and give some suggestions for growth. Like any large organization, occasionally things do not go as they should and you need to have a difficult conversation.
I share with you below some of the things that I have learned about giving effective feedback in my years of managing lawyers with staff sizes ranging from 10 to over 2,000.
To be effective, the advice must be heard and acted upon. This requires the right delivery and content. Here are my suggestions to make you a more effective leader, partner and manager:
Give Positive and Negative Feedback
Forget the adage “no news is good news.” Too many managers only provide negative feedback and fail to give positive comments. Many also deliver negative feedback in a very harmful manner. For feedback to be effective, it must be well received. To be received and understood, the recipient must be open to listening.
You can create an atmosphere that promotes growth from mistakes if you have a history of providing both positive and negative feedback. The most important tool to motivate people is to make them feel valuable and appreciated.
This requires emotional intelligence. You must be able to understand the viewpoint of the recipient of feedback to get your point across. This requires empathy. See my prior IPWatchdog article on emotional intelligence and how to strengthen it.
Providing timely and effective feedback makes people feel valued. If you didn’t care about the attorney and his or her career, you wouldn’t say anything and just let them fail. Feedback is a gift. It’s one of the hallmarks of a great leader.
Providing only negative feedback, makes your feedback less effective. The recipient will assume that you are just being critical as you always are to them and this greatly reduces the impact of your comments whether they are constructive or not. It’s like the chicken that always cried “the sky is falling!” No-one listens after a while.
So, consider altering your approach. Look for ways to compliment good performance and be compassionate and self-aware when providing opportunities for growth. You will then have loyal employees and staff who are dedicated to help you reach your goals.
Always Start with the Positive
It is imperative to create an atmosphere where the feedback is received and processed. The easiest way to do this is to begin by saying something positive first. This lowers the recipient’s defenses. Again, this is where emotional intelligence comes into play.
To be sure, sometimes it’s difficult to find something positive to say and sometimes (although this is rare) you might not have a positive thing to say. It’s important to start out with a positive statement, if you possibly can. It might be that the project was completed on time or within budget or even that the recipient had a positive attitude. To be more effective, find something positive to start the conversation.
Once you have started the dialogue in a positive manner, you can more easily begin discussing what you might have done differently.
Focus on the Behavior or Work Product; NOT on the Person
Don’t use the word “YOU.” For example, don’t say YOU did this or that wrong. It’s too personal and shuts down communication. Instead, focus on the behavior or the work product.
I prefer to phrase the criticism from my perspective. For example, you might say, “I might have done it differently because [explain the reasons.]” This makes it less critical and more of a give and take communication. You also are teaching by explaining why you would have done it differently.
This approach is much more effective than “you did xxx wrong!”
Explain WHY It Matters
It is important also to focus on the consequences of the mistake. Why is it important? Explaining the importance of the error drives home its impact on you, the client, the firm, or the organization.
Explaining the consequences also shows the recipient that you were not talking to them just to feed your ego or to show your superiority. You must explain the real consequences or the effect of the behavior or error. This is how you show that it was important to have the discussion in the first place.
You must provide corrective feedback close in time to the error for it to be effective. No matter how busy you are, take the time. If you are upset, take 3 deep breadths, but don’t put off talking about what happened for more than a day. Waiting to talk is much less effective.
Some partners are passive aggressive and just start ignoring an associate who makes a mistake. This helps no-one and hurts the firm because the associate is not being informed of their poor performance. It also creates poor morale.
If the attorney or staff person is put on notice of their poor performance all along the way, they are less surprised and hopefully more accepting if they need to be transitioned out of your organization or firm.
Go to the Recipient’s Office
It’s less threatening. People are more receptive and comfortable in their own space. Calling someone to your office to deliver negative feedback is a power play and it creates a bad environment for the receipt of the feedback.
Instead, go to the recipient’s office. It is a subtle way of showing that you respect and value them. You have the power anyway.
Assume a Positive Intent
Always assume that the person had good intentions. No-one wants to screw up, so this is usually a safe assumption. You also will create a dialogue for discussion if you approach the recipient as having done their best under the circumstances. Be firm yet compassionate in delivering your message.
For example, if an associate that you are working with left the office at 5:30, don’t assume that they are a slacker and not interested in the project. They may have had to pick up a child from school and then worked from home later that night. The issue here (if there was one) is that they did not let you know that they had to leave the office at 5:30 and why.
Set up the environment for positive and constructive communication. Don’t assume negative intent.
Ask for the Recipient’s Perspective
Always end your comments by asking the recipient of your feedback their take on the situation. You may be wrong in your criticism. Use this session as an opportunity for you to grow and learn as well.
Not infrequently, I have gone to a lawyer’s office intending to be critical of their approach only to learn during the discussion that they had valid reasons for their approach. Maybe the rules don’t allow for an approach or the facts were different than I had assumed them to be.
Be honest and let the recipient know that you were wrong. This builds your credibility and trust. Be humble and honest. Your colleagues will appreciate you more.
Everyone Wants Feedback, Including You!
Everyone wants feedback whether at work or in their personal lives. Think about it. You want to know that you are appreciated. Knowing that feedback is wanted empowers you to provide more feedback in a timely and effective manner.
Feedback is something people want…learn how to be an effective teacher, leader and mentor. If you would like more information on how to give effective feedback, check out my website.