February 25, 2020

Today, a lot of legal organizations report that they are working on creating a culture of feedback by teaching supervisors how to give more effective feedback

A July 2018 study of 234 organizations conducted by USC’s Center for Effective Organizations and the Institute for Corporate Productivity, “shows that the key to performance management effectiveness is creating a performance feedback culture.”

In the era of #MeToo and heightened political divides outside of the workplace, there is a lot of fear around providing feedback, especially if it is provided across racial, gender, and other differences.

. . .

The strengths-based technique to build confidence

Another important principle in sharing feedback across differences is to engage in a strengths based approach by sharing positive feedback often.

Indeed, this practice continues to enhance trust and make the lawyers that you supervise feel like you are invested in their development. “Cultivating strengths is one of the best approaches to behavioral improvement,” says Dr. Larry Richard, CEO of LawyerBrain. “Within law firms, the most common developmental approach is the “fix your deficiencies” strategy, which emerging scientific research shows is usually a mediocre strategy,” he adds.

In practice, Betsy Miller and Tory Nugent, co-chairs of the Public Client Interest practice at Cohen Milstein, see success using the strength-based methodology. Doing so helps young lawyers replicate their best work, learn their strengths, and create trust with the feedback-giver, because when critical feedback comes up, they know they are supported. For both Miller and Nugent, it is so easy to say: “I think you handled that client call really deftly. You did a wonderful job answering their questions. You were very direct.” The key to a strengths-based approach is providing specific feedback about what went well. Instead of just saying, “Good job,” provide details on why it was a job well done. Doing this helps create concrete, positive feedback that is essential to building the resilience needed for tougher conversations.

This strength-based approach also helps to mitigate imposter syndrome, which is the internalized pattern in which one doubts one’s own accomplishments as authentic and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. “Because one of the insidious lingering effects of racism and implicit biases, is the notion that we, as lawyers of color, are perpetual outsiders,” writes Ann Jenrette Thomas, Chief D&I Officer at Stinson, in her article on Mastering the Art of Self-Promotion. “Unfortunately, many of us internalize this message and believe that we don’t belong.”

Make expectations explicit

Once you get to the interactions about assigning tasks, it’s important to ensure expectations for the task and deliverable are explicitly understood. “Most resentment comes from failure to make a ‘clear’ request,” according to Cohen Milstein’s Miller. “Clear requests make expectations and the details of the deliverable explicit and actionable.”

For example, when a partner has assigned a brief to a junior lawyer, the partner is expecting a final draft of the brief that is client-ready, fully polished and without any errors before the junior lawyer goes home that day — but all the partner requested was “a draft later today.” The lack of clarity leads to a perception of unfair expectations by the junior lawyer, and this is the key reason to ask questions to ensure both the assigner of a task and the junior lawyer completing it are on the same page. Questions that you, as the task-assigner, could ask for this purpose, include:

  • “Tell me in your own words what you think I have asked you to do for the assignment.” (Make sure to correct them if what they say is inaccurate. It is also helpful to have the associate draft a few quick bullet points about what they understand the assignment to be so that there is a record. Sometimes partners forget what they said, and the associate usually gets the short-end of the stick in those situations.)
  • “What level of quality do you think I am expecting?”
  • “If you need guidance or have clarifying questions for how to do something, what will you do? Who will you go to?”

The complete article can be accessed here.