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Giving feedback can be tricky, but clear and considerate language sparks a two-way conversation.

A manager (let’s call her Anita) experienced mounting concern over her associates’ inability to learn from mistakes. Her ongoing feedback did not achieve traction. Instead she found herself in a vicious, repetitive cycle; handholding her team who were, by all accounts, capable and driven associates. The problem she presented was multi-faceted. Not only was she fatigued with the tedium of her repetition, but the impact on her team was stark: poor time-management, reduced billing, and negligible progress.  Clearly a circuit breaker was required, and it came in the shape of a multi-focused approach, addressing both team culture and feedback proficiency.

Let’s first turn to culture. Often overlooked and underestimated, trust is an essential ingredient required for effective feedback.  Trusting relationships tend to flourish in environments where mistakes are considered learning opportunities, rather than failure.  Anita’s team, though eager to overcome their challenges, experienced an overwhelming desire to “do the right thing”, stripping them of their preparedness to risk trial and error.  Instead, everyone stuck to their corner and refused to reach out of their comfort zone, thus stunting their professional growth.  The team appeared to be in a state of professional paralysis. 

Often overlooked and underestimated, trust is an essential ingredient required for effective feedback.

Cultural change cascades from the top and Anita was tasked with considering her own motivation when giving feedback.  Prior to each feedback meeting she considered her personal biases, context, and relationship with the associate.  This reflection enabled her to conduct the meeting with a clear intention of empathy and support.  Easier than it sounds, this approach required digging deep, being honest with herself and, in some cases, considering whether she was the most appropriate person to provide the feedback, or whether the conversation could be better delivered by another partner. 

Anita also redefined her feedback approach by adapting best practice to suit her personal style.  She incorporated weekly individual check-ins with her associates which gave her the opportunity to connect interpersonally, discuss a breadth of issues, and provide timely feedback in an integrated and seamless manner.  She focussed on transitioning the feedback loop into a two-way, transparent process which shifted the team’s attitude to feedback, from admonishment to collaboration.  Salient points included:

  • Discussing specific matters rather than taking a broad-brush approach.  If there were several concerning issues, she prioritised the most important ones and referred only to those, rather than overwhelming the associate with an extensive list of problems. She could come back to others another time.
  • Explaining the impact of the issues on the team, and the wider firm, so as to establish the importance of the matter at hand.  In doing so she honed her broader message that feedback is not a personal attack, but a focus on career and business improvement.
  • Collaborating on improvement opportunities and encouraging her associates to take considered risks.  She noticed the more the associate engaged with the solution, the higher their ownership of the problem.

Finally, we worked with the team to develop their openness to feedback: reminding them that as uncomfortable as it may feel, feedback is a gift and an opportunity to uncover one’s blind spots.

The team, who opted to incorporate peer, as well as managerial, feedback into their processes shifted their approach. They recognised that constructive feedback requires preparation and courage (on behalf of the person providing feedback). They explored their own responses and developed more effective reactions.

For instance, rather than avoiding feedback, they sought it out by asking for specific examples, paraphrasing to confirm their understanding, and collaboratively identifying opportunities which would benefit their career and the firm.

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