“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
I bet most of us heard this phrase at least once from our parents. My mom had it down to a look. The problem with that kind of thinking, though, is that it makes us uncomfortable giving good feedback — or any feedback at all.
There you are, a successful law firm owner, stuck between being a kind person and giving your employees the feedback they need to do a better job. You want better performance and to help them grow, but you don’t want to say something to distress or hurt them. You fear that if your feedback frustrates them, things could deteriorate even further.
What’s a law firm leader to do?
Let’s Redefine ‘Feedback’
We all know the cultural meaning of feedback. Is feedback ever good? If it were, it would be called a compliment, right?
Feedback is defined by Google dictionary as:
“Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance, task, etc., which is used as a basis for improvement.”
Interesting. That definition isn’t what I expected. Have you ever received feedback that was information about reactions to your performance? Me neither. The feedback I’ve received came as a declaratory statement about performance without much discussion on best practices for change.
Let’s redefine feedback and the way we approach giving it.
Conventional Feedback versus Observational Feedback
Feedback is the fastest, least expensive way to change behavior quickly in the workplace.
Conventional feedback calls for the “compliment sandwich” method.
You may have been on the receiving end of this kind of feedback. The manager begins and ends with praise and slips the feedback into the middle.
Although wildly popular, the sandwich method is ineffective for several reasons, including:
- People learn to disregard the praise because it’s attached to the criticism.
- Some people just hear the compliments without the criticism.
- It breaks the trust between manager and employee.
There might be a discussion, but there’s no real understanding. It’s doubtful the feedback is received so the problem remains.
I am not a fan of this method. I find it patronizing. I prefer observational feedback.
Observational feedback is defined as an opportunity to assess or reassess a behavior, practice or system to determine if it is effective or needs change.
It’s more collaborative because the employee and the manager act as partners to identify the issue and jointly determine what should happen next. Taking this approach reinforces the idea that each member of the firm is responsible to the team and for the firm’s ultimate success. You work together to resolve issues that affect everyone. That’s how you show respect and cement trust with employees.
Giving Feedback: When, Where and How
After asking “What should I say?” most people want to know when and where to do it.
The best time to give feedback is right now. Sure, it’s tempting to wait to see if the issue clears up until work isn’t so busy, but waiting rarely helps when giving feedback. Feedback needs to be hot and fresh like a just-delivered pizza. Give feedback within a week of the precipitating incident while the details are fresh in your mind.
The best place to give feedback is in private. Never give feedback at a meeting or casually around the office. You’ll damage your relationship with the employee, and worrying about “who will be next” will distract other employees who may be present. Find a private place. The most obvious choice is your office. If the weather allows, though, consider taking a walk. This gives you a change of scenery as a buffer to the conversation and may lift both your moods.
Be authentic, empowering and clear. Giving observational feedback is simple but not necessarily easy. You might have to practice allowing room for the other person to speak and to contribute to the conversation. That’s OK because you’re the type of person who knows you can learn to do new things well.
Here are the steps for giving observational feedback:
- Prepare yourself.
- Introduce the topic and goal of the meeting with the secret phrase below.
- Share your own feelings and inquire about their feelings.
- Share your observation.
- Invite conversation.
1. Prepare yourself to give feedback
You are going to have emotions about giving feedback to your employee. There’s no way to eliminate that. You’re entitled to feel anxious, afraid and nervous because a) you’re human and b) law school didn’t teach you to manage other people. Accept it and don’t beat yourself up. I admit that initially I hated giving feedback. I lost sleep. Over the years, however, I’ve grown to see it as a loving gift that helps someone develop into the best version of him or herself.
2. Introduce the topic and goals
People love thrillers and mysteries, but not when it comes to their work life. You’re leading the conversation, so get straight to why you are having the meeting and your goal, which is to ultimately change their behavior or process.
Scientists discovered that by saying the following words your feedback will be 48 percent more effective:
I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.
I call this a preamble, words you say to lead into the conversation and provide context. The preamble is very useful because it gives you a calming and affirming way to start the conversation. Remember, people love to live up to expectations.
3. Share your feelings
Emotions are like toxic sludge. You can bury your feelings of nervousness or anxiety, but they will seep into the conversation. Share your true feelings about needing to have this conversation with your employee. Better to clear the air and make it safe for your employee to share his or her feelings, too.
A simple “I’m feeling a little nervous. I want this to go well. How about you?” is good. The other person almost always laughs and says, “Me, too.” Tension is broken.
4. Share your observation
Share what you’ve noticed that caused you to want to give feedback as a question. Yes, a question. You’re asking the employee to share what they know about what you noticed. There’s so much that happens at your law firm that you might not be privy to everything. Your employee might have a reason why they changed the system or made an error.
Think of it this way. You are investigating what happened and brainstorming a solution as teammates. Be specific. Use examples. When you find the issue together and then devise the solution together, your employee is more likely to implement it, because she or he was part of the process. Agreements are more durable when the parties truly own them.
5. Invite the conversation
Inviting your employee into the conversation, instead of assuming you have superior knowledge, creates trust, loyalty and accountability in your working relationship. Of course, this means you’ll have to listen to your employee. Don’t formulate your response or control the conversation. Simply listen, get curious, and ask questions. If you feel rusty, consider taking a mediation class to brush up on your listening skills.
It’s a mindset shift to think of feedback as something you do to start something new and good, instead of something you do to stop something bad.
And it’s understandable to be worried about saying the wrong thing and exploding what already seems like a dangerous conversation. But people need connection and clarity to do their best work. New lawyers and employees need and want feedback from you. Using observational feedback can improve performance, strengthen your law firm — and save your nerves.
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