Today, providing and receiving feedback should be a regular habit for us all – not a rare gift, delivered once a year, or seen as a burden to provide. Feedback is communication. Feedback is guidance. Feedback is an opportunity to raise performance for all concerned.
It is already widely recognised in law firms that to deliver high performance and develop talent there needs to be a culture of feedback. Approaches have developed significantly over the years. We have moved away from annual performance reviews to more frequent discussions. We have removed unnecessary barriers by changing processes and feedback capture mechanisms. The mindset has also altered, building the expectation that everyone provides feedback and that we should also ask for it. Importantly, these approaches apply to all in the firm, from partners to paralegals, administrative staff to the chief operating officer, and regardless of employment arrangements.
Getting into the right mindset
Feedback is a two-way street, so here are four things to keep in mind:
- Distinguish between the message and messenger: To benefit from the feedback we must focus on the message being shared.
- Remember it is not a judgment: Feedback is not a judgment on your personality and is from a moment in time. Use the insight to grow.
- Listen closely and check for understanding: Avoid the temptation to plan your rebuttal while the feedback is being shared. Ask questions to understand more, and then reflect.
- Express appreciation: Regardless of your views on the feedback you receive, you should encourage future feedback.
When and how to ask for feedback
Part of the culture shift is to encourage people to ask for feedback, not just wait for input:
- Timing: When to request input? At the end of a case makes sense, but also consider doing so at the start to ensure that you know what is expected and where to focus. Before asking for feedback make sure that you both have enough time for the discussion to ensure it is productive.
- Open questions: ‘How am I doing?’ is unlikely to result in much more than a binary response. Consider questions such as: ‘Based on my recent performance you have observed, what specifically can I do to better?’ ‘How can I further improve going forward?’ ‘What should I do more of to be more impactful?’
- Who to ask: This may be obvious, but consider asking more than one person. Perspectives from all those around you are essential, and those you work with you in different roles may see different things. Don’t rely on just one input or data point.
Firms are now using a variety of tools to gather performance feedback, including apps that enable quicker, real time input to be shared. There are some tools and approaches we can all use that do not require investment:
- Advance signalling: Give people advance notice that you would like to receive some feedback and agree a time for a conversation. This gives time for preparation, on both sides, and is far more likely to create a positive and productive discussion.
- Framework: Share a simple framework to help the person think about the feedback you receive. For example, stop, start and continue: What should I do less of or stop?; What do I need to start doing; What should I keep doing?
- Third party: Using a 360 degree feedback tool, capture input from people you work with, in different roles and inside and outside chambers. However, without access to such a tool, you can ask someone to gather feedback on your behalf. This may generate more direct insights and highlight themes for you to consider.
Creating the habit
We know from behavioural science that our best intentions are not always realised as we do not translate to actual implementation. We often maintain the status quo and continue on the path of least resistance, and there is significant and powerful research in this area. So, to create the habit one useful technique is to link the feedback discussion to specific events, for example, after a case, or at key milestones, or diarise once a month to take time to share and/or request feedback.
People often learn more from what was not successful, as long as the mindset and encouragement exists to maximise the opportunity.
Jay Connolly is the Global Chief Talent Officer for Dentons and responsible for the human resources and talent functions across the firm. He spends a significant amount of time supporting partners on leadership development.