It won’t come as a surprise that attorneys who provide regular feedback – positive and negative – are exponentially more satisfied with their team’s work product. Studies show that it is one of the most direct paths to team longevity, productivity & profitability. Keep in mind that feedback should be a two-way street to be effective. Unfortunately, work assessment, often only given in the framework of course correction, comes at the hands of managers to their subordinates as a means for immediate and long-overdue performance improvement. If this approach rings true for you and your team, we would like to offer some tips for improvement. Read on for best practices we share with clients.
Here are four tips for leveraging a great feedback environment.
#1: Give Candid Feedback
Good business requires professional candor. When giving feedback to someone, especially if it’s critical, say what needs to be said. This is crucial for the fast-paced, deadline-driven law firm environment. Often, our new clients admit that in the past, they let negative observations build up before they eventually exploded with frustration. This can negatively impact an employee’s confidence and, if ongoing, can transform a firm’s culture from a team effort to a fear-based “me against you” environment. There is a direct correlation between leaders who shy away from a candid conversation with their teams and firms whose staff exhibit dysfunctional communication such as sarcasm, eye-rolling, passive-aggressive behavior, gossip, etc. Another outcome we see when real-time direction is avoided is attorneys who dial down their expectations and then compensate by taking on additional tasks they know should be delegated. This usually leads to more frustration or angry outbursts.
The team member on the receiving end of this also feels it is unwarranted when their attorney explodes, unleashing all pent-up feedback in a fury. It is far better to pause along the way and provide redirection to arrive at the end product you need and desire.
It’s never easy to hear critiques of our work, but it’s far worse never to hear them. You don’t want your employees to feel blindsided, and you also have a right to comment on corrections and watch for improvements promptly.
When giving feedback:
- Don’t be vague. Reference a specific instance or instances as examples. “I noticed that you had a few formatting issues last week. I want to make sure we’re on the same page about formatting and whether you need further resources.”
- Don’t use the feedback sandwich. The “good” comments at the beginning and end feel fake, as if you only brought them up because you needed to say something negative and wanted to wrap those statements up in a nicer package.
- Don’t yell, raise your voice, or get angry, even if you feel warranted in doing so. Remain calm. This gives you the best chance to learn more about why the issue happened. Most professionals, especially in a team environment, want to produce the work their managers expect. If continued mistakes occur, you’ll know you’ve made your best effort to address these concerns upfront and amicably. You shouldn’t feel guilty about parting ways with someone who isn’t a good fit when you’ve done everything you can to coach them on your preferences and desired deliverables.
#2: Back Up Your Team
When someone loses respect for the people they are serving, they lose their drive and their incentive to impress. Let me explain.
Suppose a team member comes to you with concerns about a situation that occurred affecting them or your firm. Pause and take a breath, then begin by asking probing questions such as, “How would you like to see the situation handled? What outcome are you looking for?” Then listen. It will give you greater insight into how to best respond (ex. Should more info or perspectives be gathered? Should you speak with your client or employee to set expectations of staff treatment? Is the employee’s expectation reasonable? Is additional training needed? Do they need to adjust their bad attitude?) Letting the person know you will need time to consider the best solution is acceptable but do not fail to close the loop promptly. In some cases, a relationship manager or an HR professional can be a great third party to help show that everyone is on the same team when there are escalated conflicts.
Be honest with judgment, using a third party only when the situation calls for it or until you improve your prowess for candid communication.
When you set the expectation that both of you will get and give feedback, this establishes a foundation for a highly productive working relationship. Conversely, when receiving employee feedback, begin with a pause and try to understand their perspective. If you hear the same critique more than once or from more than one person, it is worth digging a little deeper.
#3: Provide a Regular Feedback Cadence
For getting and giving feedback to employees, consider these two options:
- For immediate concerns, such as a project recently completed or a current issue with the way something was handled, feedback should be provided in the moment.
- Set aside time every other month or once per quarter for more ongoing high-level feedback.
One-on-one meetings are best for both kinds of feedback. Don’t let minor issues build up between the quarterly or bimonthly meetings. Doing so can be frustrating for an employee who might not even remember the incident. It can feel petty to a worker to bring up an issue from weeks or months ago for the first time in a feedback session.
#4: Respect the (Fair) Feedback Given to You
It’s important to remember that no one is perfect, not law firm staff or the attorneys they serve. And, as Jim Rohn said, “Don’t let learning lead to knowledge. Let learning lead to action.” It’s a great learning opportunity to better yourself when you can learn how to interact with your workers most effectively. Please make sure you recognize how the feedback process will work in advance so that it can be explained to employees, too. Will it be verbal? Will they complete a questionnaire? How will you make them feel comfortable about providing comments?
At times, attorneys can hear the feedback they’ve received from their team as complaints. But, in truth, if your staff cares enough to risk sharing their observations and possible development areas with you, it shows they are invested and are trying to grow roots in your firm. Much like Aristotle’s sentiment, “Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society,” a business filled with professionals focused on flying below the radar will fail to thrive. Employees have valuable perspectives on management, client relationships, speed of case progression, marketing, and many other systems because they’re the ones in the weeds daily. Don’t lose the opportunity for your people to provide suggestions – even changes – because you may be missing out on remarkable chances to grow your law firm and improve your business across the board.
Feedback is essential, and our most successful clients agree. We have a front-row seat to see the effects of candid, consistent feedback on our client’s businesses. It shapes their relationships with our VLP, their staff, their client’s experiences, and ultimately the firm’s productivity and profitability. Establishing processes to create or support candid conversations is what we know to be the very fabric of modern successful law firms. It’s the fiber of our services, and what we strive to provide every client we are fortunate to serve.