The Case for a Strength-Based Approach in Feedback: Avoiding the Common Low-Resilience, Highly Skeptical Construct in Lawyers

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Feedback, Government, Law Firms, Leadership, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Talent Development


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 discusses how to overcome lawyers’ natural disinclination to feedback and how a strength-based approach may hold the answer.

The most stable fact in Dr. Richard’s research is that “lawyers have low resilience,” he says. In fact, 90% of lawyers are in the bottom-half of the resilience scale, according to his research, and this low-resilience personality trait in most lawyers impacts feedback in how it is given and received.

Impact on the Feedback-Recipient

When feedback is given to a low-resilience person, they are typically not going to hear it because of defensiveness, even when it is positive or constructive. “I’ve had many partners in law firms tell me, wrongly, that you need to be careful not to give too much positive stuff because if you give positive feedback, then it minimizes the importance of the negative because the negative won’t stand out,” Dr. Richard says.

Actually, the opposite is true, and that is backed up by neuro-psychological science. What actually works, according to Dr. Richard, is a more strength-based feedback session. In practice, Dr. Richard recommends that feedback-givers start out by asking such questions as: “What do you do well?” Then, dive deeper into what the person does to excel by analyzing the impact of his efforts, the skills being used, how the person attains these skills, and the specific words used by others about the feedback-recipient.

Then, ease into more constructive feedback by asking: “What should we discuss that is not a strength?” According to Dr. Richard this method works because the recipients then “are simply much more receptive to hearing that.”

Impact on the Feedback-Giver

Lawyers with low resilience also are reluctant to give negative feedback. In particular, Dr. Richard notes that partners are reluctant to give negative feedback when they themselves are low in resilience.  Dr. Richard says he sees the negative impact of this when describing two common career situations, which play out over and over again in law firms every day: i) when someone is up for partnership, and they don’t make it when they thought they would; and ii) when an associate is caught off-guard by getting a critical review during the annual performance appraisal after receiving praise from the partner informally throughout the year.

The most likely explanation of this phenomenon is the concern that if the partner gives negative feedback, it might lead to criticism and push-back. Indeed, the perception of conflict in an interpersonal situation is much different than that in a structured legal situation.

How Skepticism Fits In

Lawyers’ traits of being notoriously skeptical likely impact the dynamic of both giving and receiving feedback as well. On the receiving end, when lawyers get praise for a job well done, their antennae goes up, and they think, “What are they after? Why are they being so nice to me? I don’t think it is true.”

Again, Dr. Richard has observed this phenomenon too. “When I do 360s [360-degree performance appraisals], the partners and senior associates receiving the feedback during upward evaluations first look at the narrative comments to see the critical comments, skipping over the good news,” he says.


Dr. Larry Richard of LawyerBrain

Skepticism is also a factor for the feedback-giver — not so much about the content of the feedback, but about the legitimacy of the process that they’re engaged in. A typical thought process for a skeptical feedback-giver include questions such as: “Is this person that I’m giving feedback to really going to take this in? Does this matter? Am I wasting my time?”

An unfortunate impact of this skepticism is poor empathy, and according to Dr. Richard, the majority of lawyers are low on empathy. During informal settings, the feedback-giver is not putting themselves in the shoes of the recipient and asking, “How will my comment be received? How are they going to be taking in? What kind of reaction is the receiver going to have?” At the same time, the recipient is thinking, “Ouch. What they are sharing is hurtful. Make it go away!” Instead, the feedback-receiver should be analyzing the interaction and asking, “Is this person really interested in my development? Do they have my best interest at heart?”

How to Give In-the-Moment Feedback from the Strengths Lens

In the first blog post on feedback with Dr. Richard, he spoke about “taxi-cab feedback” — a concept he defined as a best practice from McKinsey & Co. Taxi-cab feedback is on-the-spot feedback received informally, such as on the way back to the office from a client meeting. To move this idea further, Dr. Richard advocates for the strength-based feedback approach with two requirements.

One, the feedback-giver and -receiver must establish trust in the relationship, Dr. Richard says. “You must gain rapport with the person,” he explains, adding that it is the mindset that really matters. “You need to have a mindset of ‘I’m genuinely interested in your development.’ If you don’t think this associate is competent and you don’t think that they have the potential to improve, you have no business giving them feedback,” he notes.

Two, once trust is created, the feedback-giver needs to ask the feedback-receiver to rate themselves on their performance by saying, “Tell me, what do you think went well in that transaction or client discussion?” and “If someone was giving you feedback, what do you think they would say about an area where you could do better?”

Most lawyers can identify with the low-resilience, highly skeptical mindset — because it is reinforced by their training to identify problems. Indeed, Dr. Richard states that “we’re just sitting ducks for a poor feedback experience because of these personality traits.”

The strengths-based approach to feedback is a solution to this dilemma, however, and Dr. Richard has seen amazing results after teaching it to law firms. “I have been focusing my feedback-giving on one’s strengths for the last two years,” he says. “And when I am coaching, I front-end all of my authentic positive feedback.”

When he does that, Dr. Richard has noticed that the feedback-recipient is much more open to the negative comments. Indeed, Dr. Richard states that when this approach is used, “what I have found is more willing[ness] to work on it, spontaneously on their own, without my having to go there. I’ve never seen that before.”