Delivering Feedback Fairly and Constructively

In my last blog post, I discussed how professionals can constructively process tough feedback they have received and the consequences of avoiding colleagues who deliver it.

But what if you’re the messenger? Leaders can’t avoid difficult conversations. Those who do it well build firm cultures where people feel safe to speak up and feel motivated to improve, all for the sake of their clients.

Before delivering the feedback…

  • Check your bias. We’re often drawn to evidence that confirms what we might already believe, such as generalizations about the employee’s age ( boomers or millennials) or past experience. We also tend to be tougher on others than we are on ourselves.
  • Confirm facts without creating drama. What happened and what was the consequence? People might construct their own narrative, extrapolate or anchor their opinions unless you emphasize that this is a situation that can – and should – be overcome.
  • Gather background information. Does the feedback align with any management systems, such as performance reviews or productivity metrics?
  • Set up a meeting with your colleague, but don’t cause unnecessary alarm. Tough criticism is best delivered face to face, in a well-considered conversation.

As you speak…

  • Ask, don’t tell. Yes, it’s important that the mistake(s) be corrected, but it’s also important to draw out defensiveness by learning the employee’s perspective, checking assumptions and building trust. Collaborating to find a path forward will feel a lot safer for everyone.
  • Look for small ways to improve that could deliver long-term results, and determine how meaningful they are to everyone involved.
  • Check for understanding. Your colleague might not be able to articulate his interpretation of the feedback in the moment, either because you’ve observed a behaviour or attitude he may have thought he was masking or because he is embarrassed. Can he acknowledge someone else’s interpretation of the situation being discussed? It indicates empathy, if not understanding.

Afterwards…

  • Follow up. Don’t dust your hands off and walk away, thinking your job is done. It isn’t. Leaders earn a lot more respect if they ask the employee what his or her perspective is on the feedback after some time has passed, and if both you and the employee can implement strategies to prevent a similar situation in the future.

There are as many management resources on providing feedback as there are situations that require it. If you’d like to learn more, two of the best I’ve found are Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, a Seattle based consultant who has worked with CEOs and executives at major corporations for several decades.

Take the Sting Out of Tough Feedback Learning to Embrace Constructive Criticism

“You have a tendency to step on people’s toes when you’re leading a team. Instead of engaging them, you run them over in your efforts to get the job done.” Delivered from a manager at my first job as a lifeguard, the feedback disconfirmed every perception I had of my fledgling leadership skills.

It stung. But my supervisor was right, and she was right to tell me. She pointed out how people reacted to my behaviour and how it affected my performance. I was 16 and I really wanted the job, which meant I couldn’t avoid her. So I adapted.

A recent post on hbr.org mentioned that when faced with feedback that is more negative than one’s own self-perception, employees are 44% more likely to drop a relationship with a colleague. The statistics are slightly better if the employee must continue working closely with the person providing the feedback, but he or she can still disengage from the relationship in subtle ways.

I often see similar situations in law firms. Feedback is given on someone’s performance of a specific task – writing an opinion letter or interviewing a client. The feedback is repudiated. Avoidance ensues (“I’ll do it myself next time.”) Working relationships dwindle, if not disintegrate.

At best, two solitudes will find a way to coexist. At worst, firms implode. Clients are denied access to the full intellectual capital of the firm, innovation is stifled and employees are left feeling like children caught in the middle of a dysfunctional family.

The author of the hbr.org post, Francesca Gino, says that employees do this because “disconfirming feedback threatens their own views of their skills and accomplishments…and people tend to focus on the positive aspects of their character, personality and behaviour and discount the negative ones.”

How to deal with tough feedback

  • Don’t wait for it to be offered: ask for it instead. Has a colleague been avoiding you since you worked together on something? Do you suspect why? Take the high road and ask them. That said, make your questions about your work product and your approach to the task.
  • Express your disappointment, not your anger, when someone’s perception is different than you’ve previously heard or than you believe. You don’t know the other person’s experience and you don’t know their bias. They might not know yours, either.
  • Ask what you could have done differently and why that might be a better strategy from your colleagues’ or clients’ perspective.
  • Resist the urge to personalize the feedback. You might not respect the person who provided it, nevermind like him or her. But insinuating that their perception stems from immaturity, limited information or mean spiritedness is fruitless (and probably unprofessional).

Thirty years after hearing the feedback from my first supervisor, I still try to keep it in mind (with varying degrees of success). I have since been in work situations where I’ve heard fair criticism that has been delivered well and not so well. It’s the former scenario that has made the biggest impact in helping me improve.

Do you need to deliver some tough feedback? Contact me to discuss your proposed approach (or wait for next week’s post for some pointers…).

Keepin’ it Real: Implementing a Firm-Wide LPM Initiative, Part 2

Last week, Carl Herstein, Chief Value Partner at Honigman LLP discussed his experience in developing and implementing a firm-wide legal project management (LPM) program at his firm. The conversation continues with a candid discussion of the pricing of legal services, how it relates to project management and what clients really think of firm initiatives in this regard.

Q. How would you describe the relationship between pricing, collections, AFAs and LPM at your firm? Read more

Keepin’ it Real: Implementing a Firm-Wide LPM Program, Part 1

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, a 300-lawyer business law firm in the U.S. mid-west launched a firm-wide legal project management (LPM) initiative in 2011. They deliberately chose not to publicize the program – until recently.

Carl W. Herstein is Honigman’s Detroit-based Chief Value Partner. In this two-part blog series, Carl discusses the decision to “keep it real”. His experience exemplifies the commitment, forethought and resources required as law firms consider similar programs. Read more

The Bellwether Interview: Three Questions for Derek Lacroix, QC

Derek Lacroix, QC has been at the helm of the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia (LAPBC) since December, 1996. LAPBC provides confidential outreach, education, support and referrals to distressed members of the bar. Their clients and volunteers include judges, lawyers, articling students, paralegals, legal assistants, support staff and other members of the legal community.

  1. How have the stresses, issues or crises that LAPBC assists with changed in recent years?

Read more

Highlights from the 2016 LMA P3 Conference

The Legal Marketing Association recently hosted its annual conference on project management, process improvement and pricing (P3) in Chicago. Billed as a forum where innovative practice management approaches are shared, the event continues to showcase progressive ideas and practical experiences from firms transforming how they do business.

It’s wise to take any presentation of best practices with a proverbial grain of salt; no firm wants to reveal its daily struggles. But you also have to give credit to those who proactively invest in new ideas and risk failure. That’s something we don’t see enough of in law.

Here are some of the ideas heard at this year’s P3 conference.

The Chicken or the Egg?

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More than a Google Search: 4 Questions to Assess Your Reputation

When I ask young professionals how they plan on building their reputations, the answers that I usually hear range from “do whatever I’m told” to “don’t screw up” to “incessantly self-promote”. Of course, there’s more to it than that.

A reputation rests on:

  1. The esteem in which you are held
  2. The respect people have for you
  3. Your perceived level of trustworthiness
  4. The admiration that stakeholders have for your character

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Sabbaticals for the Self-Employed

Many firms now offer sabbatical programs as a workplace benefit. As long as employees meet defined criteria and plan carefully, they’re able to take a few months off without much risk. But are sabbaticals really feasible for self-employed professionals?

Given that I’m self-employed and that I work alone most of the time, I didn’t think that an extended absence was really an option. A carefully cultivated – or lucky – opportunity could arise at any moment. If I wasn’t around to respond, I could lose the work to another consultant. Not to mention, being self-employed means saving money for vacations and losing productivity time while taking those vacations (with limited amounts of human resources to delegate to while away).

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