Addressing the feedback fallacy: how it can fail

legal recruitment Perth

Giving feedback is one of the hottest topics in the legal market today.  Your talent pool is the most important resource you have, so it makes sense to get the most out of them.

For years, this has meant providing “constructive criticism” of almost everything a lawyer does. The overriding belief is that effective feedback is candid, critical and rigorous: here are your weaknesses, here’s how to fix them, and here’s a model of the ideal lawyer to measure yourself against.

The problem?

Excellence is not the opposite of failure. Identifying and correcting failure will, at best, lead to adequate performance. To get into the business of excellence, we at KBE Legal Hub have found out some new techniques are required.

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about raw facts; there is a correct way to prepare an affidavit or commence Magistrates’ Court proceedings. However, when it comes to legal skills as delivered today, especially higher level legal work – delivering presentations, managing teams, creating strategies – a shift in perspective when giving feedback will help project your people to excellence as opposed to adequacy.

Radical candor, identifying flaws, “plugging the gaps” in performance – this has been the accepted model of feedback for years.  To help your people thrive and excel, we suggest trying the following as well:

1. Look for outcomes

The best place to start is by looking for outcomes. Excellence, after all, is only an outcome, so whenever one of your people achieves that outcome, stop for a minute and highlight it. Identify why it happened and what makes it excellent. In doing so, you encourage “conscious competence” – giving your employee the best chance to recreate it and ultimately make a pattern of it.

2. Make positive feedback a high priority

If a project you’re leading is going off the rails, then interrupting your work to deal with it – including setting team members straight – is natural and necessary. However, it’s worth remembering that remediating like this won’t get your team to excellent performance. It will only put your project back on track.

The solution is to treat feats of excellence as you would treat instances of poor performance. How many times have you interrupted your work to provide praise? By reshuffling priorities, you are guaranteed to improve your employee’s understanding of excellence, making it more likely to occur in future.

3. Aiding discovery

When employees come to you asking for feedback (or seeking a promotion), it might be natural to say “do this…” and leave a shopping list of directions. However, law firm life often happens in patterns. It’s likely that your employee has encountered this particular problem at least a few times before. Asking “When you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked?” can be a more effective way to overcome the problem, as the chances are higher that the troubled lawyer will gain lasting insight.

Ultimately, it is people that contribute their own unique and growing talents to a common good – feedback has nothing to offer to that. We as humans excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.

This insight has been adapted from a recent article published by the Harvard Business Review in 2019. Read the full article here.

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