Talking Back, Part Three
How to Give Feedback
The staff evaluation form lands on your desk, with instructions to return it within a week. It’s time for the dreaded annual performance review. And it’s dreaded not just by those being reviewed.
If you are giving the review, it raises anxiety because you don’t want to “be mean” (well, maybe some people do, but that’s a different subject), or you may be convinced this whole exercise is pointless because in previous years your feedback has fallen on deaf ears.
For some law firms, though, the annual review may be the only time people talk about work performance, goals or how the office is functioning on a daily basis — the only opportunity to give and receive feedback. Worse, in some firms the only “feedback” given is when someone is called out for a mistake.
So, think about it. If the only time you are giving people feedback is in this out-of-the-ordinary, high-pressure environment, and your only comments come off as critical, they are not likely to hear what you’re saying. And as an added bonus, everybody will come to hate the idea of “feedback.”
Be Heard and Be Effective
Because of anxiety-provoking systems like the annual performance review, many people perceive “feedback” as code for “blaming.” But, as explained in “How to Ask for Feedback,” feedback isn’t blame, or flattery, or one-sided, dead-end information — and it’s not just more noise in the system.
Real feedback is constructive information about work product, personal performance or some other output of a system, used to identify problems to correct and strengths to build on. It can also be the source of new ideas to improve firm systems or services, and your law practice overall.
Keeping this definition in mind will help you give feedback that’s more likely to be heard, and more likely to be used to make improvements.
Learning to give useful feedback is a lot like learning to ask for feedback. You begin by asking yourself the right questions.
1. Who’s the recipient of your feedback? The kind of feedback you give depends on the person who’s receiving it. Research has shown that novices respond best to encouragement because they’re still unsure of themselves, while experts want corrective feedback as a way of advancing their development. This doesn’t mean, however, that you explain away the problems with a novice’s performance, or that you ignore the best parts of the expert’s work. Instead, for novice attorneys or staffers, point out something they did skillfully that has some parallels with the problem area, and show them how they can use that skill to improve the part they’re struggling with. For the experienced lawyer or staff member, explain how certain areas could be improved, but also acknowledge excellent work when you see it.
2. When are you giving feedback? Tailoring your feedback to the experience of the person receiving it works better when you give feedback regularly. Whenever you see good work, express your appreciation and encourage more of it. When you see a problem that needs to be corrected, point that out, too, with suggestions for how to fix it. If you have difficulty doing this on the fly, consider scheduling regular “check-in” meetings with staff or attorneys you supervise. Or, consider having a “debriefing” meeting when a representation or project ends. The purpose should be to review both positives and negatives, consider how to build on strengths and correct weaknesses, and see if anyone has ideas for making other improvements.
3. What are you saying? Before you say a word, remember your goal in giving feedback: To help the person do better work. “You are a bad writer” merely tells the new lawyer something negative about himself and gives him nothing he can use to improve his work. Instead, show him the weak points in the research memo he wrote and how it can be better supported. By the same token, “You did a great job!” is nice to hear, but it doesn’t give useful information that can be applied in the future. Specify which elements of the work were particularly successful, so they can be repeated.
4. How are you saying it? The answer should be “directly, specifically and kindly.” Directly identify the particular problem or strength; give specific suggestions for correcting the problem, or building on the strength; and don’t be unkind or get personal. Again, it’s about the work, not the person. A lot of people will use the “sandwich” approach — putting negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback to cushion the blow. Mostly, this is to make everybody feel better, but it doesn’t help people work better. The recipient is left thinking she’s done a good job, even if a major problem exists. It’s not kind to mislead people into thinking their work is great when it’s not, though it’s also not kind to act like a jerk when you’re bringing it to their attention. Put yourself in the person’s shoes, and talk the way you would want to be talked to.
Fundamentally, getting and giving feedback is all about good communication skills. Some people have an easier time learning the art of feedback than others do. But with thought and practice, any lawyer can put feedback to work in the office, for everyone’s benefit.
Mary Taylor Lokensgard is a recovering attorney with over 15 years of experience in private practice, including plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, estate planning and administration, and elder law. She’s now working as an independent writer, and she tweets @marylokensgard.
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