How To Get Constructive Criticism From Associates When You’re The Boss

Law firm partners and senior attorneys hold more than just a formal seniority over younger associates. Like a parent, at times, they may wish to be your friend. But, most often, their position of leadership implies a position of power.

“People with formal power can affect our fate in many ways—they can withhold critical resources, they can give us negative evaluations and hold us back from promotions, and they can even potentially fire us or have us fired,” explains James Detert, associate professor at the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management to the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

It’s why many employees fear their bosses. This fear stymies any truthful rapport from developing between two lawyers who are separated by a rigid professional hierarchy.

Thus, it can be hard, as a managing partner or attorney, to get feedback on your own performance, life at the firm, or case-specific matters.

In order to get productive and honest feedback, follow a few of these steps, suggested by the HBR’s Amy Gallo. Although beware—you may get exactly the constructive criticism you asked for.

Acknowledge the fear.

“The major reason people don’t give the boss feedback is they’re worried that the boss will retaliate because they know that most of us have trouble accepting negative feedback,” said Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, to Gallo at the HBR.

Therefore, do what you can to create a comfortable atmosphere. Explain that there will be no negative repercussions for negative feedback.

If you must, leave the room to allow for honest and open dialogue among your employees. Then, have a single person compile the suggestions made during your absence and have that person report back to you.

Whatever feedback forum you prefer, start by acknowledging that your employees fear reprisals, and put their minds at ease.

Request examples.

Specifics are important in generating productive feedback. It’s easy to give praise, and even easier to give criticism. But, supporting your compliments or complaints with exact dates, cases, or moments in time can be more difficult.

Ask your employees to be the most specific as possible when giving feedback. That way, you can repeat positively received events and abstain from repeating the negative ones.

In addition, asking for specific examples will ensure your employees are being honest about your performance, as opposed to just listing attributes or qualities of leadership in a generic (I-don’t-want-to-get-in-trouble) way.

Read between the lines.

Despite your best efforts, employees still may not feel comfortable enough to provide honest criticism. Ask for feedback anyway.

Look at trends and gaps in their answers about the firm’s (or your) successes and failures. Use your common sense to read between the lines and look for areas of improvement.

For example, if your team unanimously agrees there should be less weekly meetings (but nobody explains why), it’s possible they don’t like the way these meetings are run. Instead of abolishing these meetings altogether, take note—the next time—of your employees’ reactions to conversation to pinpoint the problem.

Find a few trusted people.

Finally, if you’re serious about getting objective feedback, ask a few colleagues whom you trust to report back.

Don’t choose Mr. Neighbor Brownnose for the job. Look to people who will be brutally honest about criticism. Only then will it actually be constructive.

In the end, only ask for feedback when you’re ready to accept it. If you’re not willing to change, then learning about your flaws as a leader may not be helpful.

Don’t be afraid to implement changes at the workplace. Your employees will be glad to know that underneath the voice of authority at the firm is also a leader who will listen.


Read the full article and its suggestions for getting feedback when you’re the boss here.


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