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How to give feedback

02 June 2017 - By Kate Geenty

Giving staff feedback or critiquing their work can be a delicate task, but putting in place processes and frameworks can make it easier for everyone.

“You’re dealing with people’s reputations and the way they view themselves and their careers. Most of all I think people get very anxious, especially junior people, if they think their careers are going to be impacted by the feedback they are receiving,” says Irene Joyce, who runs Professional Edge and works with law firms to facilitate strategic planning and provides in-house training for partners and teams.

Schedule it in

Ms Joyce suggests that feedback or constructive criticism is offered in the spirit of professional development. “So, make it clear to the person you’re talking to that the reason we have feedback at all is to help them develop professionally, in their career and in their skills. Explain that, sometimes, it may mean getting feedback that is difficult to hear but it is not given to be destructive, but to help them. If you use that framework, then that makes it easier.”

Scheduling regular feedback sessions can stop issues from festering and can take away any unpleasant elements of surprise. For junior staff, Ms Joyce says a quick, scheduled catch-up with a partner or supervisor each day should be enough to keep on top of issues. “Instead of saying to your junior solicitor ‘come and see me if there are any issues’, schedule in a daily 10-minute meeting, perhaps in the morning when you are setting them up for the day. You check their work from the previous day, you make sure they have enough to do on that particular day and that also gives up the opportunity to offer any feedback on things you may have noticed from the previous day.”

Regular sessions like this also give both you and your staff a chance to make sure you are on the same page. “Where feedback often goes wrong is a solicitor has a certain idea of what is expected and the firm has a different idea of what is expected and those things are never set out, so the expectations are unclear. If the expectations are unclear, then people are going to get feedback that surprises them.”

Coaching conversations

While daily catch-ups might be ideal for junior staff, once they get more experienced you can schedule weekly meetings and involve them in the evaluation process. “Juniors may not be able to do this as well as someone who I call proficient, but once someone gets to the proficient level of their career I think it’s really important that critiques begin with self-evaluation. Otherwise, they become dependent on their supervisor giving them feedback,” says Ms Joyce.

She suggests that a partner or supervisor schedules a meeting and outlines a topic – say, a document review, a court appearance, a client interaction, billing and budgeting or any other recent work. The junior person is then asked to start the conversation, outlining what they think went well with their work and the outcomes they were happy with. The partner then adds their thoughts.

The next stage is to ask what could be improved. The staff member then needs to talk through what they think the impacts of those positives and negatives were. Finally, set a goal. “It might just be one small thing, it could be to do with the layout of a document, or their researching skills or how they interact with clients.”

Ms Joyce says if this is done once a week, then the whole process should only take about 10 minutes. “I find that this is something that defuses the whole feedback situation, because it becomes a two-way situation, not one-way delivery.”

Dealing with tears or defensiveness

If someone gets upset by your feedback, take a deep breath and try and stay calm. “Because one person has to be calm,” says Ms Joyce. “You need to just ask yourself, how am I delivering this? Am I coming across too strongly? Am I criticising rather than offering feedback? And just back up a little bit.” She suggests waiting wait until the person has calmed down a bit and then offer them the opportunity to reconvene.

Sometimes, people’s first reaction to feedback is defensiveness. “They’re resistant to receiving feedback and will argue against every little bit of criticism.” In this instance, Ms Joyce says it’s a good idea to stop talking for a moment. “It’s amazing what a big impact that has, when someone is arguing with you and you just put your papers down, take a deep breath and count to five.”

Then, instead of going back to your feedback, you comment on what is happening and how defensive they are being. Ask if there is anything in what you’ve said that they accept. “If they won’t then I think you have to say ‘this approach that you are taking is likely to be detrimental to your professional development, because to develop we all need to be able to be open to hearing feedback and accepting it, and acknowledging what we can do about it’”

Getting it right

Done right, constructive criticism and feedback can have long-term benefits and can be an important teaching tool. “Most successful people will look back on their career and remember times when somebody helped them, somebody put that extra time and effort in, or gave them a piece of crucial feedback that affected them for a long time and which they remember.”

Dos and dont’s of providing constructive criticism

  • Focus on the work or the behaviour rather than a personality issue,
  • Do not deliver feedback when you are angry or stressed,
  • Don’t let issues bottle up, as you are more likely to lose your cool when you do decide to speak up,
  • Make time for regular catch-ups and feedback sessions so expectations are clear,
  • Offer feedback in the spirit of professional development,
  • Don’t forget to give positive feedback,
  • If you have some negative feedback, deliver it in private in a one-on-one environment to prevent embarrassing anyone

This year Irene Joyce is presenting three workshops for the NZLS CLE programme: Recruitment and Retention, Effective Supervision Skills, and Prospering as a Small to Medium Law Firm. In addition she presents the People Dimension section of the Stepping Up programme.


Last updated on the 2nd June 2017