A few years ago, Google conducted a study analyzing what makes a team thrive. The study was called Project Aristotle based on the Aristotle quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
In this study, Google found that individuals on teams with higher “psychological safety” are less likely to leave the company and feel safe to take risks around their team members without embarrassment or retribution. “Psychological safety” refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking despite the possibility of being seen as incompetent, negative, or disruptive. They also discovered that teams with higher psychological safety are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and are rated as effective twice as often by executives.
Because lawyers, by nature, are risk-averse, it’s even more critical to foster psychological safety among legal team members. That way, legal team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable and transparent in their communications. And given that psychological safety provides the foundation to build a highly effective team and to create a culture of feedback, it’s imperative that general counsels foster psychological safety on their legal teams.
At Checkr, we began the journey of strengthening psychological safety on our legal team by first trying to identify and understand what psychological safety means. While we already had a highly effective team, we wanted to layer in specific, deliberate practices to further increase psychological safety. So, we brought in an executive coach to practice and focus on three deliberate actions:
- Aligning on context and goals — This is a verbal communication skill to ensure there’s alignment and agreement on both the background and the end-goal.
- Giving others the benefit of the doubt — This skill requires approaching an interaction with another person with an open mind and assuming positive and smart intent as both individuals focus on a common goal.
- Making the other feel heard — This active listening skill requires repeating back what is heard to make others feel that they are heard and understood.
We then intentionally practiced these above skills among ourselves and with our business partners in meetings. These skills helped provide us with the tools foster a safer environment to collaborate internally and with our business partners.
Fostering a Culture of Feedback
Psychological safety is also a key ingredient for creating a culture of feedback because it reinforces trust. Trust is the most critical component for feedback being taken to heart by the receiver. For feedback to be effective, the receiver must see the giver as a credible source of development advice. One will not hear and take valuable feedback to hear, even if it is constructive, unless they trust the giver. Simply put, psychological safety is the foundation for creating a feedback-rich environment because you want to be in a comfortable dynamic when you provide candid feedback.
Another key element of creating a culture of feedback is to ensure such feedback is on-going and given just in time. The best actionable feedback is given in the moment when the situation and observation are fresh in the eyes of the receiver and the giver.
At Checkr, we also use regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports as a frequent mechanism for feedback, and we view giving feedback as a shared responsibility between the manager and the employee. That said, employees that are looking to actively grow should always be soliciting feedback; and at the same time, it’s the job of the manager to provide career coaching and specific, action-oriented feedback. This feedback should also contain specific examples so the receivers know exactly what the giver is saying.
Active listening, one of the key elements of psychological safety, is crucial to demonstrate a shared responsibility between the manager and the employee to make sure both are on the same page. For example, it’s important for both parties to repeat back what the other person is saying because misperceptions and miscommunication can occur.
Finally, writing an email that summarizes the feedback conversation — including what was agreed upon, along with the follow-up actions expected — so that the conversation is memorialized is another important action, especially for difficult conversations that require clarity and follow-up. And it should be done soon after the feedback occurs so that it accurately captures the conversation.
The Role of Feedback in Talent Development
Feedback is crucial for engaging, retaining, and developing employees. To this end, managers have an essential role to play because most employees want feedback that will help them develop their skills. Furthermore, employees want to know they are meeting expectations.
Managers can play varying roles in a feedback conversation. During a feedback session, for example, managers can share their perspective on the skills the person needs to grow; and in that same conversation, they can act as career coaches to help the employee decide how to acquire key experiences or opportunities that can close specific skills gaps.
On my team, I use feedback to also help people explore different career path options. Having a clear path as an in-house lawyer is uncommon. In my experience, identifying that next role is a mix of proactivity and luck. In situations where the next role is not immediately known or available or if they want to further advance in their role, I advise in-house lawyers at Checkr to look towards their peers at other companies and see how they found themselves in that role. I also encourage my team to get involved with in-house networks where they can network, exchange ideas, and learn from each other.
For junior lawyers, I recommend them emulating what the person above them is doing and urge them to think creatively about how to expand their influence and breadth of work.
These practices — creating psychological safety, providing just-in-time feedback, and setting up regular one-on-one meetings between managers and employees — help build a culture of feedback. They also reinforce career ownership by employees, urging them to take the initiative and understand what specific actions they need to do to improve and excel.
Given that culture of feedback spurs a multiplier effect of employee empowerment and engagement within in-house law departments, general counsels and team managers should use their platform to invest the time in building psychological safety and providing active feedback and coaching to team members.