Creating a work environment in which feedback can flow back and forth, especially among those of different generations, is key to fostering an inclusive culture
Law and accounting firms are recognizing the need to create and foster the feeling that each individual belongs in the organization, especially across generations with different characteristics. Giving and receiving feedback across differences is a key ingredient in the success formula for creating belonging and also can positively impact the firm’s overall performance.
Yet, these skills are lacking in many traditional work environments and are more difficult to execute in a hybrid or remote environment. The ability to manage people with unique identities, from different generations and performance capabilities, is a real challenge for practice leaders, managers, and supervisors of matter and engagement teams within law firms and tax & accounting firms.
Developing feedback skills across generations
Expectations around the quality and frequency of feedback shifted in the first decade of 2000s with the entry of Millennials into the workforce and have grown even more with the advent of Gen Z workers. Much of this need for increased feedback over the last 15 years has challenged leadership and more seasoned colleagues, who have spent the early part of their careers in work environments defined by a traditionalist culture that was accepted and largely continued by Baby Boomers.
Historically, no news was good news as far as feedback was concerned. When feedback was given, which was relatively rare and scheduled annually, those with a traditionalist mindset — mostly from the Boomer generation and older Gen Xers — assumed that the experience of a current junior person was the same as their own.
Giving and receiving feedback is a skill to be honed, and the responsibility of both the giver and receiver. Thus, feedback needs to be a two-way process, and it is therefore important that it is approached by both parties with respect and with a sense of trust and psychological safety. And these factors need even more attention in virtual and hybrid work environments.
Establishing trust and psychological safety is mostly the responsibility of the individuals who are the feedback-giver, usually partners and senior associates within law firms, and partners, directors, and senior managers in tax & accounting firms.
Best practices for the feedback givers and receivers — Preparation on the part of both parties is critical.
For the feedback-giver, part of an effective preparation process will include analyzing what language will be used for constructive feedback, what language to avoid, and specific tactics that should be employed when the giver or the receiver becomes defensive. Feedback-givers, for their part, also should aim to motivate receivers and set out milestones for follow up actions.
The feedback-receiver should take time for reflection ahead of a feedback session by thinking about how the receiver has been performing, what has gone well, and where improvements are necessary. Receivers should be honest with themselves, even if that is sometimes painful. Also, receivers should come into a scheduled feedback meeting with their own agenda, along with good questions they want to cover.
It is also important for both parties to assess their mindset and think about what could derail the feedback. For example, receivers should anticipate their responses when receiving feedback that they do not like.
Dealing with micro-aggressions — Handling micro-aggressions, especially with younger generations, is also an important consideration in feedback. This is a challenge because what is considered a micro-aggression is evolving; and to Boomers and older Gen Xers, this can seem like navigating a minefield.
This is where establishing a sense of psychological safety beforehand between the feedback-giver and receiver is critical and should be an integral part of firm culture. Feedback-givers should be open and ask for feedback if they use language that is perceived as negative. Too often, however, receivers will not speak up if they feel that there is any threat that could hurt their careers. Therefore, it is key for organizations to train feedback-givers on what particular types of verbal and body language can be perceived as a micro-aggression — or something even more blatant. It’s a good idea to solicit what personnel consider micro-aggressions periodically in order to keep current.
Post-session, helping feedback-receivers stay accountable to suggested follow-ups and reiterating that updates on how feedback is being applied are key. Indeed, effective feedback needs a plan of actions with check-ins as often as necessary.
Integrating feedback into the culture of the firm
Intentional action and investing in creating a culture of feedback is essential to improve the performance of any individual and the firm as a whole. Prioritizing development of lawyers and accountants at all levels is essential in establishing a culture of delivering both scheduled and spontaneous feedback and doing it well.
For example, feedback training for both receivers and givers is important. Modeling the best feedback behavior at all levels and generations brings a big payoff in job satisfactions and retention. One idea is to use partners who are effective feedback-givers to lead the training — this often produces better results than using training & development staff.
And in today’s work environment, firms have to realized that delivering feedback virtually is going to be a part of the feedback process going forward. Virtual feedback started during the pandemic and still can add a layer of complexity that both givers and receivers need to acknowledge, especially since body language comes across differently on video.
Overall, firms should look for ways to elevate the feedback experience, both in-person and online, and continually provide informal feedback and intentionally give receivers a sense of warmth and belonging are good actions to take to retain and develop the best talent.