Shhhh. Stop and listen closely. Do you hear that? It’s the collective groan of lawyers all over the country as performance review season descends upon them.
The aversion to this annual ritual is understandable. The review process often is a time-guzzler for partners and anxiety-inducing for associates. And whether there’s a positive return on the investment is in serious question. For example, a national survey found that 87% of employees and managers believed that performance reviews are useless and ineffective. A scientific review of studies of more than 600 feedback processes found that many were ineffective while 30% were destructive to performance.
The problems with the traditional appraisal process are no secret—if you Google the phrase “performance reviews harm performance,” you’ll get more than 11 million hits. But most firms still stick with it. A growing number of organizations such as Lear, Deloitt and Atlassian, however, are scrapping their annual performance appraisal processes in favor of a more individualized, coaching approach. Given the problems of the old systems and the promising results of the new ones, law firms should consider doing the same.
But until firm managers can herd all the cats around that lofty goal, you can consider a few Badass Butterfly Tactics (BBTs) to upgrade your existing process. As I explained in my last blog post, BBTs are relatively small, doable ideas backed by science that can generate sizeable results.
Excessive Focus on Weakness
Research reflects that a major culprit undermining the effectiveness of performance feedback is the excessive focus on weaknesses. We’re all experts at spotting other people’s faults. Job-related “professional development” typically consists of identifying others’ failings and ways to fix them. But is this really an optimal way to bring out the best in people? Research says it’s not.
Reviews will do little to improve performance if employees don’t see them as fair, useful, valid and accurate. Negative feedback rarely is viewed as such. Instead, it often triggers an ego-defensive reaction that make learning less likely and undermines job satisfaction and commitment. Educating lawyers to engage their teams through a strengths-based approach can avoid the negative effects of deficit-focused feedback and contribute to better performance. Also, keep in mind that partners have the same human psychological make-up as associates!
Reorienting Performance Management toward Strengths
Scholars’ extensive study of human strengths has found that people gain more when they build on their natural talents than when making comparable efforts to improve their weaknesses. Research also has found that a strengths-orientation enhances employee engagement and performance. This doesn’t mean organizations should ignore weaknesses; the question is where to invest the most effort.
The BBTs: Injecting Positive Jolts into Your Performance Review Process
All the above suggests that a strengths-orientation is the best way to develop an optimally-performing organization. To get started on tweaking your current process, here are some science-backed recommendations:
- Start with a “Feed-forward Interview” (FFI)—Rather than focusing on “what’s wrong,” FFIs elicit positively-charged success stories. The FFI approach is based on the positive psychology theory of appreciative inquiry (AI), which proposes that conversations about strengths and successes can be transformational and facilitate change. To conduct an FFI, start the meeting by asking lawyers to describe a specific positive situation when they felt they were at their best. Then explore what circumstances were involved, how those circumstances differ from the present situation, and how the conditions in the success story might be replicated in the future. Actively listen and discuss the strengths involved in the event and how they might be leveraged for future success. Include an interactive goal-setting component to help identify and clarify aspirations and expectations moving forward. To celebrate successes, consider organizing a social get-together to share and celebrate some of the positive stories shared during the FFI meetings.
- Deliver negative feedback in writing in advance—When negative feedback is necessary, consider conveying it in writing rather than verbally and in advance of an in-person meeting. Studies show that eliminating the presence of another person increases the effectiveness of negative feedback by reducing the recipient’s ego-involvement. If you need to discuss performance deficiencies (verbally or in writing), include comments to boost the lawyers’ feelings of self-efficacy and confidence that they can meet the challenges. Avoid personal comments that threaten self-esteem. To implement this under firms’ current processes, partners can consider giving a written feedback form to associates to review prior to meeting for the FFI. During the meeting, focus primarily on strengths and ask if there are any questions about the written feedback.
- Meet often with each lawyer—Don’t wait until next year’s annual review to coach your team. Research conducted by Gallup has shown that ignoring people is toxic and produces the worst outcomes—even worse than focusing on weaknesses. Research also shows that feedback that is frequent, directed toward clear goals, continually identifies improvement over prior performance, and acknowledges progress toward goals is the most energizing and most likely to improve performance. To implement these findings, schedule 10-minute weekly meetings with each lawyer about ongoing projects. Ask: “What are you working on” and “how can I help?” Schedule monthly meetings with the entire team to discuss the big-picture, review and revise goals, and celebrate successes.
- Build a strengths-oriented culture—Do a strengths-finding exercise with your team to identify each person’s individual strengths. A number of tools are available including, for example, StrengthsFinder, VIA, StandOut and DISC. Build development plans that incorporate strengths and continually find ways to capitalize on those strengths. Incorporate the discussion of strengths into regular business routines. For example, when creating a new team for a client matter, take the time during an introductory meeting to talk about each person’s strengths. The same tactic could be used in client-facing meetings, including during client pitches or introductory calls for new matters. Regularly celebrate successes.
American Educator Elizabeth Harrison (1849-1927) is quoted as having said, “Those who are lifting the world upward and onward are those who encourage more than criticize.” Science now has borne out what Harrison instinctively understood: A strengths-orientation toward development is the best way to energize people and achieve optimal performance.