What Makes Lawyers Tick?

Supercharging Multi-Rater Feedback

Posted in Assessment, Leadership, Self-Management

This is the time of year when a lot of law firms administer multi-rater feedback surveys—these can include “360-degree feedback” or simply “360’s”, as well as peer reviews and upward evaluation surveys. What they all have in common is that an individual receives feedback from multiple raters.

Multi-rater surveys can accomplish several goals at the same time:

  • They can provide important feedback to the individual “ratees” (i.e, the feedback recipients).
  • They can provide the raters an opportunity to be heard
  • The aggregated results can provide actionable feedback to firm management about important behavioral issues that may need attention

Some law firms take a minimalist approach to these surveys—they run the survey, gather feedback from raters, and then simply send the feedback report to the ratees (usually partners) and leave it to those partners to interpret their own reports.

While this approach is quick and efficient, it can significantly sacrifice effectiveness and result in little to no behavior change.

To achieve the maximum payoff for your investment—for example, if you want the feedback to be maximally effective, or you want to foster behavior change, or you want the raters to feel like they’ve definitely had their voices heard—then consider taking the following two steps in addition to merely administering the survey:

(1) Gain buy-in at the time that you build the survey, and

(2) Provide meaningful coaching and strengths-based feedback at the back end.

Buy-in: Surveys have a powerful impact on people—on both those who give feedback and those who receive it. For the givers, they can raise significant expectations about potential changes in the ratee’s behavior—and they can also arouse concerns about retaliation, confidentiality, and related fears. (Not all feedback is “bad”, but lawyers tend to pay more attention to the negative.) For the feedback recipients, it can create a potent discrepancy—between “how I thought I was behaving” and “how others see me behaving”, for example, or between “how I see myself” and “how others see me”.

However, the degree of impact will be minimal if the survey participants had little or no involvement in the creation of the survey. When firm management simply announces that a survey is going to take place, and sets it in motion, it’s seen as something that “they” are doing.

Consider how much more powerful it can be to involve the potential raters and the potential ratees in the actual design of the survey from the outset. This small additional step can yield an enormous advantage—participation leads to commitment.

In other words, when the raters and ratees have had a hand in discussing the survey, thinking about its purposes, contributing ideas about what should be measured, and weighing in on some of the design choices, then when the survey actually takes place, these participants will be much more inclined to accept its legitimacy and to take the entire exercise more seriously.

Strengths-Based Coaching:  When a feedback report is provided to an individual without any coaching, the individual is left to make sense of the feedback on his/her own. Inevitably, human nature takes over, and most people will skim the positive feedback quickly and then linger on and resist the negative feedback. Lawyers do this more readily than most people.

Lawyers are trained to hunt for flaws, problems, and weaknesses. In my experience, when a ratee receives a feedback report at the end of the survey process, s/he almost always focuses on the “bad news”—for example, the first place that most lawyers turn to is the narrative comments that contain any criticism.

This is quickly followed by coming up with reasons why any critical comments are invalid and must be dismissed or ignored. This defeats the purpose of the exercise.

A good coach can help the feedback recipient make sense of the feedback in a way that is open-minded and constructive. The coach can help the recipient use the feedback to improve performance, attain desired goals, or adjust behavior.

The most effective coaching emphasizes the feedback recipient’s strengths. There is a growing body of scientific research showing that employees who focus more of their attention on their strengths, and how to leverage them, realize greater increases in performance and report higher levels of satisfaction than those who focus primarily on their weaknesses.

Focusing on strengths does not mean that weaknesses are to be ignored. Rather, it’s a question of emphasis. Research shows that it is more effective to spend about 75% of your time focusing on how to improve strengths, and 25% on how to manage those weaknesses that are so dire that they actually are interfering with your performance. (Lesser weaknesses can be safely ignored—when someone demonstrates a superior strength, others tend to overlook moderate weaknesses altogether.)

Bottom line: The most effective multi-rater feedback systems involve potential raters and ratees from the outset and seek their input in the design of the system. And the most effective way to deliver feedback is by using a coach who employs a strengths-based approach.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

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