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Legal Talent & Inclusion

New White Paper: 9 Steps on Giving Constructive Feedback Across Differences

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Many legal organizations say that they are working on creating a culture of feedback, primarily by teaching supervisors how to give more effective feedback

A July 2018 study of 234 organizations conduct by USC’s Center for Effective Organizations and the Institute for Corporate Productivity, “shows that the key to performance management effectiveness is creating a performance feedback culture.”

Today, a lot of legal organizations report that they are working on creating a culture of feedback, primarily by teaching supervisors how to give more effective feedback. At the same time, most negatively perceived situations involving feedback occur when there has been a misalignment of expectations.

Download the new white paper, 9 Steps on Giving Constructive Feedback Across Differences, to learn more.

As part of Thomson Reuters Institute’s legal talent and inclusion initiatives, we’re proud to launch our third white paper on how to effectively give feedback across differences, exploring how using a coaching approach is an effective way to give such feedback, even in a low-trust environment.

Some of the nine steps outlined in the paper include:

1. Reflect on your own journey

It’s not uncommon for seasoned attorneys to forget the lessons learned in their own professional development. This can create unrealistic expectations of what a more junior lawyer can accomplish, resulting in harsher criticism of the junior lawyer.

For example, imagine this scenario: A partner at a large firm was ready to write-off an associate of color. On several occasions, the partner had called this associate into his office to discuss the associate’s shortcomings. After being asked to reflect on how the partner received feedback when he was a young associate, the partner realized that it was easier for him to receive feedback because his mentors had first made it clear that they cared about him by investing time to get to know him, socializing with him, and learning about him as a whole person.

When asked to imagine what would have happened if the partner’s mentors only gave him feedback in their offices and did not otherwise show an interest in him — similar to what he was now providing to the associate lawyer of color — the partner realized that the feedback would have been devastating and undermined his confidence.

The use of self-reflection such as this can greatly help cultivate the empathy and compassion needed before engaging in feedback.

2. Build trust before giving feedback

Before embarking on any situation involving the delivery of feedback, it is important to build a connection — the first basic building block to trust.

Also, it is important to assume positive intent, which goes a long way in establishing trust. The highly skeptical construct of the “lawyer brain” can make giving others the benefit of the doubt more challenging, and it can be exacerbated by stereotypes and unconscious biases.

For receivers of feedback with multiple diverse identities — such as women of color — it can result in double-barreled bias, which “rears its ugly head via a myriad of tired tropes and stereotypes,” according to Kristen Hardy, legal counsel at a Fortune 1000 manufacturing corporation. “For example, Black or African-American women are regularly pegged as angry or shrill when they become expressive; Latinas are similarly stereotyped as quick-tempered and excitable; and Asian women are viewed as passive or invisible.”

However, with some focus, building trust can be done because the more exposure we have to people who are different from us, the less we allow ourselves to be impacted by stereotypes. Chatting over a cup of coffee with the intention of learning about the other person, for example, is a low-stakes, key step in building trust. And the more positive connections we experience, the more trust we show. As a feedback-giver, look to learn more about the full person and be willing to share your own humanness and vulnerability.

Another tactic: Ask open-ended questions to find what you have in common, such as:

              • “What do you care about outside of work?”
              • “What is your proudest accomplishment?”
              • “What drew you to the law?”

The idea behind these questions is to trick the brain into using the affinity bias, which is the unconscious tendency to get along with others who are like us. For example, if we are of different races and genders, but we love the same music, then it creates something worth bonding over.

3. Ask questions to enable lawyers to find their own answers

Once you establish a connection with the lawyers you supervise, you have put a good down payment on the trust between the two of you.

As your working relationship progresses, however, your conversations will naturally transition to focus on the work and tasks at hand. At this point, the ongoing use of the coaching modality of asking questions is an effective tool.

By asking questions, you are instilling a growth mindset in young talent because you are helping them discover the answers themselves instead of simply giving them the answers. Open-ended questions, such as “What did you learn?”, “What aspect of the task did you most enjoy?”, or “How do you think you performed on the task?” enables you to continue building trust and understand younger lawyers’ strengths and weaknesses professionally.

I want to thank my co-author Ann Jenrette-Thomas, a Legal Executive Institute contributor and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Stinson.