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We lawyers are so good at talking. So why do we have so much trouble communicating? Partly it’s because communicating is about much more than talking. It’s also about thinking, listening, analyzing, strategizing, body language, being sensitive, being flexible, etc. The reason to focus on effective, candid feedback is because it’s a key characteristic of high-performing workplaces. Think about it: A law firm in which problems are aired and dealt with effectively has got to be more successful than one in which performance issues never even get raised or, once raised, aren’t dealt with properly. So — if you improve your law firm’s ability to give and get feedback, it will become a more successful place. THE COMMUNICATING RELATIONSHIP Let’s start with what an ideal communicating relationship looks like. I’d suggest it’s one in which we are able to communicate sensitive but important information, while preserving relationships and improving performance in the long run. This takes place against a background of trust, ensuring that a respectful exchange of honest information won’t result in retaliation. So the focus is on performance, not politics. This is the ideal. But how about situations where the feedback process breaks down? Usually when we think about these things, we think about feedback improperly given, or sins of omission. For example, a junior partner attacks a senior partner during a partner meeting for poor performance, causing the senior partner to be so resentful and angry that he doesn’t consider whether the junior partner had a point. Or, a partner cuts off an associate during a client meeting, saying, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” and takes over; the associate leaves the firm soon after, fed up with being criticized in public. Or, a new associate labors over his first brief, only to have it returned to him in his mailbox marked up in detail by a senior partner; the associate thinks he’s failed at the assignment, and avoids working with the partner thereafter. In all these instances the manner of delivery obscures the message. In other situations, which are at least as common, feedback isn’t given at all, or not reported to the relevant person, because people avoid confrontation or because “no news is good news.” These are sins of omission. For example, a very nice senior partner finds that associates and secretaries don’t finish his work on time. He tries to talk to them about it but doesn’t deliver his message forcefully enough, and the lax performances persist. In another situation, a young partner sees a peer getting a big head and alienating colleagues and staff alike, but doesn’t want to risk their friendship by telling him how he’s coming across. Or, a lawyer tries to cultivate a close relationship with a secretary in an effort to be a good boss, only to find that the relationship is too cozy and that not enough work is getting done. Often the major reason for these problems is a lack of shared standards within a firm about expectations and accountability for performance. The result is that performance flaws go uncorrected, clients can suffer and malpractice risks increase. Conversations that need to take place directly take place informally and not with the people who need to hear them, creating divisiveness and a gossipy, threatening atmosphere. There’s low morale and strained relationships, where hurt feelings and anger obscure the overriding need to improve performance. In sum, you wind up with an underperforming workplace, where lawyers and staff do not benefit from constructive feedback and, as a result, do not demonstrate a complete understanding of their accountability to firm and clients. So what can be done to tackle performance problems and make them a little less likely to occur? The following seven steps include three focusing on dealing with an identified performance problem and four focusing on ways to set a candid tone in your office so that problems are less likely to occur or persist. THE SEVEN STEPS 1. Examine Basic Fears and Assumptions Many people do not like to confront, so it pays to examine underlying fears. People often think that if they tell the secretary she’s making too many personal calls she’ll quit, or that if they tell a senior partner he’s alienating a client that they’ll get fired. Now, sometimes these worst-case-scenario events do happen. But ask yourself how likely it is to occur with the particular problem you’re facing. Also, people’s reactions to negative feedback can be surprising. Often people aren’t upset by candor but, in fact, relieved to clear the air. Others simply don’t know how they come across because no one has ever told them; they will be genuinely surprised. And in any event, it’s worth it with a significant issue to suffer some short-term awkwardness in favor of long-term improvement. 2. Pick Your Battles Next, you have to figure out if it’s worth it to say anything. You’re not going to intervene every time there’s a problem. I’d suggest that if there is a substantial problem hindering performance and getting in the way of the firm’s best interests, there’s a prima facie case for getting involved. If your secretary is always sending out messy or misspelled stuff or if an associate constantly turns up asking questions he could resolve on his own, it may be time to act. Ask yourself if there’s someone else better able to deliver the message. If the senior partner is not getting along with a client and the relationship is threatened, perhaps you can recruit a peer of the partner to resolve the situation. And there are other times when you should hold your fire, such as when a usually great employee has a temporary downturn or when an associate or secretary needs to go through an inefficient process in order to learn. Further, people who are routinely confrontational will need to hold their fire now and again so they don’t get marginalized as bullies or grumps who are always complaining and can be tuned out. 3. Deliver Bad News in a Good Way If you have made the decision to intervene, have a plan before you meet with someone. Choose your words, rehearse and even role-play with a friend. Keep in mind at all times your goal in the process; it’s not to vilify someone for a particular fault but to improve performance for better work in the future. Have the meeting one-on-one, not in front of others. Put your remarks in context, using the firm’s goals and an upbeat assessment of the person’s performance. (Remember that these remarks are about the essentially good employee who can improve. If the person is a totally miserable employee, you should be thinking about how to humanely move him or her on.) For instance, to an associate: “We’re trying to make this the top litigation firm in this area — and you’ve been a solid member of our team.” Or to a secretary: “This practice area has gotten very busy in the last year, which presents a lot of new challenges for the present and future, and you’ve been a big part of the support team.” An image to bear in mind would be the two of you standing together looking toward the future, rather than the person on his or her own looking back to past misdeeds. Finally — and this is the crucial point — give specific feedback on behavior, not the person. Use facts, not conclusions; be specific, don’t label. For example, rather than telling an associate “My cat could write better than this,” try saying, “You need to strengthen the negligence argument, your introduction doesn’t make all the points you make in the brief, and you need to add case law for the last argument.” To a secretary, rather than saying “You’re lazy and careless,” try saying, “To serve our clients best, we need to make sure that messages are delivered accurately, with phone numbers, names and dates clearly written, and put immediately on people’s desk so they can be returned promptly.” Another technique is to present the issue as a dilemma for yourself. For example: “I’m worried that we’re not giving the client timely responses. Let’s talk about how we can improve.” This signals teamwork, that you’re on the person’s side, you care, you are not being judgmental. You just want the person to improve and to give them the tools they need to do their best job. Finally, use the passive voice. Rather than “you should do this or that,” you can say, “Research can be done more carefully by the following steps.” It’s a small point, but it again takes the focus off of “you” and more on to “we.” So that covers tackling an existing performance problem. The remaining steps help to create an atmosphere and set standards so that feedback can routinely be more positive in nature. 4. Set Expectations Clearly Very broadly, on a firmwide level, a consistent strong performance in any business requires a collective and explicit understanding about the meaning of a good job. And if expectations are clear, better feedback will automatically occur. So if the “rule” in your firm is to return phone calls on the same day, and this has been well-publicized (not varying from practice area to practice area), it will be more likely to be noticed and remarked on if doesn’t happen. Help set standards that are widely understood about what makes up a good job. When you are giving an assignment, although you may often feel that you don’t have time to explain things thoroughly, you’ll save time in the long run. Recognize that junior-level people may be reticent, and respond to that. After giving someone a first assignment, seek the person out and ask how they’re doing rather than waiting for them to come to you. If you are receiving an assignment or getting direction from a client, summarize what you’ve heard: “Let me see if I can summarize what you want. As I understand it, I’m preparing a motion to compel and you want it done by tomorrow.” This is better than asking specific questions about the assignment, such as “When’s the due date? What is it you want me to do? I just don’t understand,” which can seem like grilling and as if you weren’t listening or didn’t get it. Clear expectations avoid misunderstandings and mismatched expectations about performance. 5. Cultivate Candor The building blocks for this point are courage, curiosity and caring. Courage means you are willing to admit your own mistakes. If you are in a position of power, you will gain greatly in good will and increased positive candor with judicious displays of vulnerability. Remember this, too, when you are given negative feedback. Don’t defend yourself and madly explain or assign blame; just listen. Have a line handy when someone criticizes you: “Thanks for passing that on,” “I appreciate hearing that,” “That’s interesting information” or, simply, “You’re right.” You’ll look stronger, not weaker, when you can take criticism equably. And keep your eye on the ball: If your aim is to be the best lawyer you can, listen to others, take what you like and leave the rest. You’ll know you’ve come a long way when someone delivers criticism ineffectively, but you’re big enough to take from it what can help you to be better rather than focusing on offensiveness. This step also requires a genuine display of curiosity, inviting inquiry and openly asking for input. Remember — you can only benefit from getting helpful points and can discard unhelpful points. If someone is new, look for an opportunity to show inclusiveness, like showing a new secretary a letter and asking whether a line can be improved. Finally, this step requires caring about others and about their development as good lawyers and staff people. Avoid the idea that “no news is good news.” Specific feedback about positive performance is just as valuable as honest feedback about negative performance. So try to break down what people have done right and tell them in detail: “You prepared these letters quickly, you sent them to all the proper parties, they’re all accurate, and, best of all, I didn’t have to ask you to do it.” The person can start to amass a checklist of positive points that describe what a good job looks like. 6. Learn the Danger Signals There are certain danger signals that may hinder effective feedback, especially stress. If your normally benign persona turns to rage under pressure, warn others that you’re not at your best in those situations so they understand. Also beware if you’re constantly feeling that you don’t have time — whether to explain an assignment or give the secretary a pat on the back. Take the time, and then you’ll have the time. Finally, defensiveness is a big danger signal. Most of the time, defensiveness signifies that deep down we know that we didn’t perform at our best and that we’ve got a problem. Try to short-circuit defensiveness and cut right to figuring out how to do things better the next time. 7. Criticism/Feedback = Opportunity To Learn Much of workplace dynamics is dominated by fear that is largely unhealthy and unwarranted. Fear of consequences should be converted into ambition for the best results. Candid feedback, effectively delivered, can cultivate an atmosphere in which everyone wants to work at their highest potential for their own personal good, the good of clients and the collective good of the law firm. This leads to continuous improvement and learning and, ultimately, a more successful firm. The following “countdown” is a shorthand summary of the points in this article. Frame it and put it on your wall. If you live it in your everyday work life, your own performance and others around you will get better and better. The six most important words: I admit I made a mistake. The five most important words: You did a good job. The four most important words: What is your opinion? The three most important words: If you please. The two most important words: Thank you. The one most important word: We. The least most important word: I. Holly English is a lawyer, author and consultant in Montclair, N.J., who works with law firms and other organizations to build high-performance workplaces by aligning fundamental beliefs and behaviors. She can be reached at [email protected]

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