A team of researchers at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology has studied how much time leaders spend on actually giving feedback as compared to how much time they think they are giving feedback. The researchers followed about 100 managers at various work places in Sweden from different industry sectors to ensure a wide spread of data. The researchers also videotaped and analysed what the managers actually did. Beforehand, the managers were asked to state how much time they spent on giving feedback to others.
The results are quite staggering: Most leaders spent only about 0 to 2 % of their time with telling their staff what they are doing well and what they can do better and there was hardly a leader in this study who spent more than 10 % of her or his time giving feedback. On the other hand, the leaders themselves thought that they had spent up to 40 % of their time giving feedback! Which for me raises the question: Where did all the feedback go that the leaders thought they were giving??
My guess is that many leaders wrap their feedback up in so many layers of verbal cotton wool that it becomes unrecognizable as feedback or at least extremely hard to understand for the recipient. I have had younger law firm colleagues who told me about their yearly feedback talks with their supervising partner: “He said a lot and I understand that he was not happy with my performance, but, for the life of me, I cannot tell you what it is.” That is of course devastating for a dedicated young lawyer who wants to improve her performance and develop in her professional role. And it is very ineffective from the point of view of the law firm.
Why do many leaders use verbal cotton wool to wrap up their feedback? One reason I think is human nature: If you are reasonably well-intentioned and like to avoid inter-person conflicts, you don´t want to hurt peoples feelings. Even if you are not so well-intentioned, you will at least want to avoid people getting defensive in your face. We instinctively seem to know what neuroscience now confirms as the so-called status threat that comes with giving advice or feedback, which sets off alarm bells in our brain: “The mere phrase “Can I give you some advice?” puts people on the defensive… It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.” (David Rock).
In law firms, another factor adds to this: We lawyers are a very autonomous bunch and therefore extra hesitant to give feedback to other lawyers (this is based on solid research on lawyer personality, see e.g. Douglas B. Richardsons Reflections for Legal Project Managers: Understanding the Building Blocks of Lawyer Collaboration in Edge International Review Fall 2010).
But we all know how extremely important effective, constructive feedback is for improving performance, don´t we? So how do we get around the reluctance to give it and all that cotton wool? You might want to try the following simple approach, which focuses on your own mind-set and your opening line. If you do that, I am quite confident that the rest of your feedback talk will go well:
Your own mind-set is very important. Remember that feedback is a gift. You mean well with your feedback. Let that good intention show in your wording and tone of voice. As for your opening line, you can say for example: “I would like to talk to you about that memo you wrote for X. Do you have time for that talk now?” If the answer is no, you will have to respect that, but ask “I understand. What would be a good time for you?” By letting the recipients of your feedback choose the time, you will ensure to have their full attention and give them some control, which decreases the status threat.