How to Turn Feedback into New, Sustainable Behaviors by Keeping It Simple

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Efficiency, Feedback, Law Firms, Leadership, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Q&A Interviews, Talent Development

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We continue with our series of blog posts concerning feedback, featuring the insights of Dr. Larry Richard, CEO of LawyerBrain and a leading expert on lawyer behavior. In this post, Dr. Richard demonstrates how to turn feedback into permanent behavior changes.

Changing behaviors — especially when it comes out of constructive feedback — is hard. Most of the time feedback that requires behavioral changes involves issues of leadership, collaboration, communication, or substantive lawyering that have been ingrained as part of one’s behavior over many years. To increase the chances that efforts at a new behavior will stick, Dr. Richard recommends starting with just one goal. “You start with something basic,” he advises. “You don’t try to boil the ocean — you start with something simple, something elementary. Then, you rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it. Simplicity, focus and repetition are the key strategies.”

The rehearse-repeat-reinforce loop is the key to success, he adds. Practicing a new behavior is vital because it creates new neural pathways in the brain. “The purpose of the repetition is to take it from ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ to ‘Unconscious Competence’,” explains Dr. Richard, suggesting you should think of the skill development process as going through four stages:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: “I have no idea what I’m doing wrong, and I don’t know why.”
  • Conscious Incompetence: “Now I see what I’m doing wrong, but I don’t know how to fix it.”
  • Conscious Competence: “I get how to do the right behavior, but it’s awkward. I have to devote my full attention to it. It doesn’t happen automatically.”
  • Unconscious Competence: “Now the right behavior just happens without my having to think about it.”

How Repetition Is Intertwined with a Strengths-Based Approach

One small success builds momentum for the next positive outcome. Indeed, the experience of a behavioral achievement and the associated positive satisfaction fortifies the neural pathways in the brain and reinforces the new practices. In short, success breeds more success.

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Dr. Larry Richard of LawyerBrain

This is the reason why focusing on cultivating strengths is one of the best approaches to behavioral improvement. In law firms, we usually adopt a “fix your deficiencies” strategy. Emerging scientific research shows that this is usually a mediocre strategy — it’s hard to see any improvement to begin with, and even if you do achieve improvement, it rarely sticks. By contrast, when you focus on developing strengths, most people really enjoy the effort and naturally stick with their plan to rehearse the new skills regularly. Evidence shows that shows that when we focus on developing one strength, it often incidentally builds “companion strengths”, i.e., other strengths that are loosely related, even though you didn’t expressly “work” on them.

Moreover, evidence shows that in many (but not all) cases, as one develops certain strengths, incompatible “deficiency” behaviors seem to atrophy or disappear altogether without any prompting. (See, e.g., The Extraordinary Leader by Jack Zenger & Joe Folkman.)

Organizational Structures to Build New Behaviors

To ensure that any investment by law firms in mechanisms to revamp feedback processes is not wasted, there are important organization support systems that are necessary to bolster new learned behaviors.

Practice Leader Support for Individual Development — The role of practice leader is critical for promoting and sustaining individual development. If practice group leaders do not actively and continually support developmental behavior changes — as well as role-modeling the desired behaviors themselves — then very little change will take place, and what little that does occur will not likely be long-lasting. Further, mindset matters greatly. According to Dr. Richard, the practice leader needs to demonstrate that he or she genuinely cares about the associate’s development in order to see the maximum sustained behavior change. Such statements could include: “I value you. I care about your development. I’m genuinely interested in your mastering the fundamental skills of high quality law practice. I want you to come out of this feeling like you’re a really competent lawyer who’s mastered his or her skillset.”

Alignment of Formal Compensation System — Law firms also need to look at their existing compensation systems with a very objective eye in order to ascertain what behaviors are actually being rewarded, and to determine if these rewards are at odds with the developmental behaviors that are being encouraged. “For example, if the desired new conduct is, “I want you to be more collaborative”, but the firm rewards people for being the highest billing person, and whomever bills the most gets the most money, that’s a bit incompatible with being collaborative,” explains Dr. Richard.

Strength in Numbers — Having multiple people address the same skill together at the same time is ideal for support, community, and accountability. “In an ideal world, each person should have a buddy working on the same thing, but even if buddies are working on a different skill, collaborating to keep tabs on each other is helpful,” according to Dr. Richard.

Intrinsic Reward & Recognition — Research shows that innate rewards aligned with the learner’s values are most effective when trying to improve judgment or other abstract skills. “Helping a person feel valued when they master a skill, and intangible rewards, such as public recognition, are the types of rewards that activate intrinsic values,” says Dr. Richard.