The Most Underutilized Tool in a Leader’s Tool Box

Even the most challenging case or matter is a cakewalk compared to the never-ending complexities of managing a law firm, or even a practice area. Lawyers are notoriously difficult to lead. Yet, even the most diligent students of leadership often ignore one of the most valuable tools at their disposal: simply asking for feedback.

For 15 years, I have worked with clients to conduct a series of interviews with people at work, including partners, associates, clients and others, as well as friends and family. The interviews include questions about how the leader is perceived, his or her greatest strengths, areas for growth, first impressions, etc. This exercise leads to innumerable insights, bolsters one’s self-confidence, and provides valuable information for moving forward.

If a host of objections has come to mind for why, in your case, such an exercise would be a waste of time or even counterproductive, rest assured, you are not alone.

Most people dislike the prospect of feedback and assiduously avoid it. Neuroscience research in recent years has made it clear that social threats—any of a variety of common social occurrences that threaten a loss of status, such as the prospect of feedback or rejection—trigger a similar biological response as physical danger. After all, when humans were out in the wild, if we were cast out from our social group, we would most certainly starve or be eaten by predators. Under such circumstances, it made sense to equate social rejection with death. The fight or flight response kicks in just as vigorously whether we’re faced with an intruder in our homes, our leadership position is threatened, or a partner leaves and tries to take a key client.

Neurobiology and evolutionary obstacles notwithstanding, in the modern world it is critically important to understand the viewpoints and mindsets of the people you lead; and simply asking key questions is the best way to discover that information. Even if you agree, on principle, you may have some concerns. The following are the objections I hear most frequently from clients, and my answers.

1. There’s no point in asking people for feedback because they won’t be honest.

Some will. Some won’t. You can’t force people to share their thoughts, but you can increase the likelihood by clarifying the purpose of interview. If you explain that you are working on becoming a better leader, boss, colleague, spouse (whatever is appropriate for your relationship) and that they would be doing you a favor by authentically sharing their perspective, most will do their best to offer genuine feedback. Those who already think you are amazing will be inspired that you continue to strive to be better, and that you want to help create a culture of excellence in your firm. Those with a less-positive impression should be gratified to be asked, and encouraged to know that you are trying to improve.

Attempting to engage with those who are more reticent may feel awkward, but is extremely useful. After all, the ability to solicit, and engage with, negative or contrary opinions is critical to one’s effectiveness as a leader, and this is a chance to practice that skill. If you are perceived as intolerant of criticism, or as someone for whom reality needed to be sugar-coated, it would be more challenging to gain people’s trust and learn their perspectives. However, that perception would inevitably cause all sorts of problems in the firm, from poor morale to decision makers missing key pieces of information. Disrupting this culture would be an important step in improving the work environment, not to mention the efficiency and effectiveness of the firm. Lack of transparency and poor communication are not issues that HR can fix with a 360-degree survey. The only thing a leader can do to create a culture of clear and straightforward communication is to roll up his or her sleeves and start to engage with people directly. Regardless of where a leader and others lie on the spectrum of communication and engagement, interviews are a valuable tool to help get to the next level.

2. I already know my weaknesses/I already know what they will say.

Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. I find that most people can predict about 90% of the constructive feedback they receive; but that other 10% can prove immeasurably valuable. One partner was convinced that everyone would say she was too pushy. She was told instead was that she often didn’t listen to others concerns or take them seriously. This is subtly but significantly different. Colleagues and staff didn’t mind the partner pushing her agenda, but objected to her doing so without taking their concerns into consideration. The partner, on the other hand, really thought she was listening to them. Discovering that they didn’t feel heard produced both a simple and fruitful avenue for increasing her effectiveness. Another partner was convinced that staff would say he was unreasonable and demanded they work too many hours. They may have thought that as well, but what the staff told him was that he did not communicate clearly about what he wanted them to do and therefore ended up making unnecessary work for them. This opened up a dialogue that led to both sides being much happier with their relationship and work product.

Even in situations where my clients’ predictions prove accurate, and there are no surprise revelations, actually hearing about those issues from other people can provide new insights or deeper understanding. One partner knew perfectly well that one of his biggest weaknesses was his tendency to lose his temper and yell. He knew that this was not ideal, but he had tried for years to be calmer and didn’t really know how to fix it. In the course of the interviews, five people mentioned his temper or yelling. Just looking people in the eyes and seeing how much it upset them helped him to understand on a visceral level how unsettling and nerve-racking they found the yelling. They felt like he didn’t respect them. By better understanding the impact of this one small (and relatively infrequent) action on his staff, turnover and morale, he was suddenly far more motivated and open to finding solutions.

3. Why bother? I am whom I am, and I’m not going to change to please other people.

The interviews are not only about the constructive feedback. One of the most valuable aspects of conducting these interviews is that you get a better appreciation for the positive attributes that others see in you. Most of us have a skewed perception of ourselves. We may overemphasize the importance of certain qualities while minimizing others. What is it that makes you special, makes people love and respect you? What makes clients want to work with you as opposed to that other lawyer in the same practice area? Most of us don’t really know. Maybe you provide humor, an ability to be calm in a storm, an unusual level of kindness and respect for people. Whatever your personal characteristics, you probably don’t really comprehend just how special and wonderful they are. Once you interview 10 people in your life and they all say how much they value those qualities in you, you will start to appreciate your own contribution to the world in a whole new way.

About the Author

Anna Rappaport is a former attorney and the principal of Excelleration LLC, a Washington-based coaching firm for lawyers and law firms, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. She can be reached at 202.288.4453 or

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