Masterchef contestants, actors auditioning for a role, and pretty much any lawyer, paralegal, or another team member in a law firm or in-house legal team, all have something in common. Each of them has been nervous prior to performing a task, then relieved that the task was over, and then very quickly nervous again waiting for their performance to be critiqued.
Tense, worried, and slightly scared is typically how people, even professionals, feel before they are given personally prescribed feedback. For the partner, manager, or indeed colleague providing the evaluation, breaking through this emotional blockade can be challenging; if this is approached in the wrong way, the goal of the feedback – to improve performance – can be more difficult to achieve.
Many people consider cutting to the chase to be a virtue, but when providing feedback, it can often be a misstep. If you immediately deliver suggestions for improvement – while the person receiving the feedback is still in the “fight or flight” section of their emotional Venn diagram – their reaction could be ugly. They could become hypersensitive, perhaps mounting an angry defence that will make them less likely to see the benefits of your advice. Or they could be disheartened and deflated, sinking to a low where they give up altogether. Avoid these extremes and other undesirable reactions in between by starting with positives.
Compliment first. Be uplifting and genuine. It is unlikely that there has been a total failure in every aspect of the legal or administrative task; there is almost always some part that is praise-worthy. No matter how small it is, highlight it. Very often professionals can be their own worst critic, so help them to acknowledge that they did something well. Compel them to feel valued. This will make them more likely to be open to constructive feedback. From there, your message has more chance of sticking and being acted upon.
...it is vital that the feedback you deliver is insightful, actionable, and positive will help you to inspire your colleagues to believe they are capable of more
Consider these descriptions of someone’s performance: superb time-management; great productivity; excellent rapport building with a team or client. They are all great – as headlines. The problem with confining your feedback to these types of phrases is that it does not explain why their time management was superb, how you are measuring their productivity, or what they did that resulted in their rapport being excellent. If you miss out on the detail of why they did well, they can guess exactly what it was they did that was praise-worthy, but they may not guess correctly, and the next evaluation may see you and your colleague wondering why they appear to have gone backwards. In the legal world, you know that detail is a crucial part of ensuring feedback sessions are educational encounters.
Similarly, when you move on to areas where improvement is needed, avoid broad brushstroke assessments. Without explanatory information, phrases such as “your time management needs to improve”, “your productivity could be better”, and “you need to work on your rapport-building” are of limited use. Much better would be pointing out that taking a few minutes to plan a task rather than jumping straight in will see the task completed in less time, or explaining the metrics used to assess productivity, or stressing the importance of eye contact in meetings.
When you are giving recommendations, suggest specific tools, activities or habits that will improve work output, and demonstrate these recommendations, perhaps by highlighting examples of others who have used them successfully. You can make this more powerful if you can draw on personal experience. If making one change – for example, making a list of the day’s tasks; tackling the biggest task of the day first; organising files in a particular way – improved your work output massively, explain what you did and how that had a positive impact. Always recommend with demonstration.
In any law firm or in-house team, it is vital that the feedback you deliver is insightful, actionable, and positive to help to inspire your colleagues to believe they are capable of more.