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Q. I am a junior associate who is working with a senior associate who makes all kinds of stupid mistakes. I have to cover up for her all the time, and it is a real pain. Despite this state of affairs, she believes that she is “numero uno” (which she is definitely not, since her legal abilities are rather limited) and she is very bossy, commanding, and generally criticizes me for her (!) mistakes. Yet she seems to have charmed the assigning partner, as she personally gets along with him very well. What’s more, he seems to be quite fond of the job she is doing and does not realize it is my work she receives all the credit for. (Of course, she would never tell him that I did a good job . . .) What shall I do? — Slaved and Whipped A. You have at least two problems here. You are being subjected to an abusive, immature supervisor, and, partly as a result, you are not getting appropriate credit for the work you are doing. “Slaved and whipped” may be a stretch, but I know what you mean. Most of us at some time or another get stuck working for such a cretin. It’s rarely pleasant, but rest assured that you have loads of company. Comfort with one’s immediate supervisor is one of the biggest single factors determining workplace satisfaction, so working with a bully (and one who’s stupid, to boot) can send your blood pressure skyrocketing. A cautionary point on the “taking credit” part. That she is working directly with the partner doesn’t automatically mean that you get no credit; it’s possible she’s informing the partner of your contributions. Also, she may be asked for input for your performance review, and may do the right thing at that time. There are both short-term and long-term solutions. Right now, try to start developing a low-key relationship with the partner involved. At least one factor for advancement in most workplaces is nurturing relationships; you can’t count on doing good work that speaks for itself, frustrating as that may sound. You need to develop your own network of support. Just stick your head in to his office and have a quick chat, or engage him in casual conversation if you see him around the halls. While telling him that you like the subject matter of the work involved, you can work in the details of what you’ve done on the case. You can even talk about things unrelated to work. What’s important is to develop your own independent relationship as a bulwark against the other associate. I doubt it will be profitable to try to adjust your relationship with the supervising associate. She sounds manipulative and more than happy to rely on charming the partner while leaving the heavy lifting to you. Sometimes people like this are not aware of how they come across, and can be receptive to a tactful, factual approach suggesting better teamwork and communication. Unless you have some strong evidence that she is more oblivious than malicious, however, I wouldn’t count on the direct approach. If it backfires, you’ll be even worse off than you are now, as she might start running you down to the partner. In the longer term, as your performance review approaches, ask her to give input about your performance, and either inform her about or give her a written account of your accomplishments. In this way, you aren’t confronting her with your dissatisfactions, you are simply asking that important information be passed on. In the performance review itself, which hopefully will be with someone other than your nemesis, remark that you’d like to expand your opportunities and work with a wider variety of people. You don’t have to criticize your supervisor, unless you’re asked directly for feedback on her; you can take the high road and just say that you’d rather do other things. This may break the logjam you’re in now. If performance reviews don’t happen often in your firm (and don’t worry, it’s common for firms to lag in this area), you’ll have to be a little more assertive. Initiate a career talk with another senior associate or a partner you trust to seek advice on how you can best expand opportunities within the firm. Alternatively, if there’s someone you can trust, or even a few people, explain specifically what’s going on and ask for guidance. These things have a way of percolating informally so that the information gets to the right people and a “correction” gets made.
Q. I’m a partner, and our firm has just started using an upward review program. Associates get to give their views of partners, but without having their names used. I can see some usefulness to this approach, but I think this just gives associates a chance to sound off without taking accountability for their views. It can hurt people when somebody has an axe to grind. What do you think? A. The more respectful and thorough performance evaluations that an organization can institute, using a variety of approaches, the better. Remember that high-performance workplaces of any sort routinely feature candid exchanges of information as part of their success formula. And anonymous reviewing as a transitional step in devising better feedback procedures is fine. It’s good to use in places where there hasn’t been much upward feedback, or useful feedback of any sort. For the short term, as long as the anonymous evaluations are properly managed — that is, inconsistent, possibly vengeful comments are weeded out; the information is delivered respectfully to partners so that they are not angered to the point of wanting to chuck the whole thing; and follow-up to ensure improved performance is put in place, so the whole thing isn’t an empty exercise — it’s a useful approach. People on all sides have obligations. Associates have to remember that their comments can affect people’s reputations significantly, and they should be measured and careful in their ratings and remarks. Partners need to take the comments made by associates seriously, and try to change their behavior accordingly, rather than simply reading or hearing the comments and dismissing them. Recognize that better management and performance will be to the benefit of the firm and the bottom line. One consultant experienced in dealing with upward review programs says they work out well. “Most associates who fill out upward reviews do so honestly and in good faith, just as most partners do with respect to downward reviews,” says Arnie Kanter of Kanter Professional Management. “Where a particular answer appears to be inconsistent with the partner’s self-image or the views of other associates, the questions for the partner or coach to ask are: Are there behaviors of mine that might have led an associate to feel that way? Have I treated some associates differently than others? If the answers are no, the comment may be off-base.” He cautions, though, that where several associates come to the same conclusion, their views are “almost always worthy of attention.” There are disadvantages to the anonymous upward review. Because people are afraid of being identified, they won’t include telling details; however, one of the key points of effective feedback is relying on specific details rather than sweeping generalizations. Also, although the tendency will be to reject an “outlier” comment in a sea of positives, in fact that one person might be different in some blameless way from the rest of the associates and suffering unfairly for it. Remember the purpose of feedback: it is to effectively communicate sensitive information, to preserve the relationship between participants, and to have the recipient’s conduct to change as a result. These are all vital ingredients. You can get the message across but so alienate the receiver that he or she just hates you and doesn’t change. Or you can soft pedal it to the point that the person doesn’t think he or she has done anything wrong. Another outcome: you can get the message across, and stay friends, but not devise a way to put the plan into action — and nothing changes. In the longer term, it’s better to work on open communication that goes both ways. Both an anonymous system and more candid communication can operate side by side, ensuring that those people who are too timid to give upward feedback will have an outlet. Individual supervisors should work to develop strong mutual feedback systems. Ideally, people working together should be able to speak honestly and respectfully, without having to resort to anonymous note passing. Some of the keys are: • Sticking to the facts. When people resort to judgmental conclusions in describing others, that’s often when the trouble starts. So instead of saying, “You’re an angry jerk with a bad temper,” one can say, “When we worked on the Smith case and the brief was late, you screamed at us for 10 minutes and scared us half to death.” • Setting an example. The way this works best is for the more senior person to welcome critical feedback (as long as it’s respectfully given) and to act on it. One iteration where a subordinate passes along a thought (“You always wait until the last minute”) followed by improved behavior (the partner plans ahead better) will give underlings a vast sense of relief that they can suggest ways to improve a working relationship without being penalized. • Insist on follow-up and measurement. If there’s a problem, devise a game plan to improve performance, and a way to measure improvement. Again, it’s best for the senior person to lead the way. It can be, “Okay, I’m going to work on this problem. I’m going to mark down in my calendar that in a month we’re going to revisit this issue, and you can let me know if you’ve seen improvement.” Or it can be more specific: “You’ve told me that I don’t explain things clearly enough. We’ve agreed that I will write out the assignments, that I’ll ask for questions from you, and that I’ll avoid huffing and puffing noises and a lot of eye rolling showing how impatient I am.” Communicating respectfully about performance not only will make people better performers, they will also feel greater allegiance to and respect for a workplace where feedback is encouraged and actually results in change. Holly English, a former litigator, is a consultant with Values at Work in Montclair, N.J., which helps organizations build high-performance workplaces. Her new book is Gender on Trial: Sexual Stereotypes and Work/Life Balance in the Legal Workplace (Law Journal Press). She may be reached at [email protected].

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