The Exceptional Lawyer

November 3, 2008

Heads On Sticks Parading Down the Hall

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 1:31 pm

A department head at the home office of a megafirm described the people management skills in large firms this way.  “Let’s terrorize you. . . Occasionally, cut off a head and parade it down the hall on a stick.”  Partners could benefit from improving their ability and willingness to give feedback, especially negative feedback.

The whole feedback issue is complicated by our love of praise.  Most of us were at were at the top of our classes.  Most of us got comfortable, felt good about ourselves, by always getting “A”s in classes, by always receiving praise from our authorities, who–while growing up–were parents, teachers, and professors for the most part.  

In a system as heavily scored and ranked as modern schooling, it is very hard to get comfortable with “constructive” feedback.  Students in schools (and that includes most of us when we were in school) usually take constructive feedback from people in authority as “negative” feedback.  It’s a bad score, an indication of a failure.  I think that most of us, unaccustomed to academic “failures” (like a C+ on a history paper) would usually double up our efforts in response to such an event and, in fact, learn to overcome our weaknesses.  Still, it hurt us.  It made us uncomfortable.  And, it was always something we sought to avoid.  It worked as a stick, not a carrot.

When we started to practice law, grades were replaced with bonuses and billable hours.  And, we still carried with us the habit of trying to avoid “constructive feedback” which we might now call “criticism.”  Being criticism-phobic, we also tend to be comparatively poor at giving feedback in the spirit of improvement.  We tend to believe that we are wielding a stick, not a carrot, so we withhold it (out of concern for hurting someone or fear of a bad reaction) or we smack people with it.  We end up “Cutting off someone’s head and parading down the hall on a stick.”  This, of course, supports a culture of fear around feedback.

This is a sad state because constructive feedback, when used well, is the lifeblood of ongoing positive improvement of the firm and the lawyers in the firm.  Companies and individuals that master the art of constructive feedback are the most efficient, the most happy, and the most successful.

The good news is that most firms have a tremendous opportunity for growth in this area.  By identifying this weakness, then developing their mastery of feedback communication and action, individual partners and whole firms can improve their internal workings, and ultimately their client representation, dramatically.

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