For those firms who execute a mid-year cycle of performance evaluations, it’s your season for serving up morsels of goodness and growth. For those who have a year-end cycle, you are about to do mid-year check-ins, right?

We have all heard about a generation who wants continuous feedback, and how demanding that has become on our “no news is good news” soul. However, this is here to stay. Having access to knowledge at our fingertips, from looking up legal issues to fixing a light socket, the immediacy of information translates to feedback.

There is a difference between those two – information and feedback. And they often get crossed up and treated the same. Information is shared to advance skills, often delivered in an instructional style where I tell you what you need to do, or where you need to go to advance some specific issue or project. Feedback is more about the process and how performance is going, to identify any missing resources or future opportunities. In other words, information is a telling conversation, feedback is an asking conversation.

Many people step into a feedback conversation with a list of performance items (good or bad). These items are cloaked in the way we think they should happen, which might not be how your employee would choose.

Let’s use Jett as an example.

Jett Isson has been with your firm for slightly less than a year. Jett is very fast in completing any project assigned and often asks for more assignments before they have completed their previous ones. While you appreciate the speed at which Jett works, you are beginning to notice incompletions around the edges. Jett finished that file room project very quickly, except the files never got noted in the database. Jett has championed office supplies procurement and buys whatever someone asks without budget consideration. These small things didn’t show up right away, so you gave Jett a terrific 90-day review, and another glowing review at the 6-month mark. Now you are sheepishly entering the year-end review process, knowing you need to raise these concerns, and really dreading the conversation which will appear as a course change from the last two.

How do you approach this? You might start with listing the performance components and the positives and negatives over the year they have been at the firm. Jett will certainly appreciate the compliments coming first, and the complaints second, right? Hmmmm. Would you appreciate that path?

We often start with the past, and then move to what we want in the future. We skip over the present. Consider starting in the present: Jett, I am grateful for your commitment to completing the projects I give you. Your pace is admirable, and I appreciate you asking me for more and more. I wonder how you feel you are doing right now? (Jett answers) And how does that compare to how you felt when you first started? (Jett answers) Now you answer these same questions from your perspective, allowing Jett to see the contrast, and to know that you are interested in how they see their success before you share how you see their success.

Remember that you have a definition of success that may not align with Jett’s. And may not have been clearly aligned through expectations at the onset of employment, or perhaps as a reset once the remote working world came to exist. What expectations do your employees know exist from you? Maybe a reset is in order?

You’ll notice that we started with the present performance, then moved to the past. Not the other way around. Any time we step into the feedback process our mindset is, “how can we help you excel?”. And with that mindset, we want to start in real-time, not rewinding the story and asking someone to catch up to today.

Our next question is about the future: Jett, what do you want us to measure at this time next year? What are you planning to knock out of the park between now and then? (Jett answers) Now you collaborate on goals and measures that create checkpoints over the course of the year. For instance, one goal could be a monthly check-in on budget vs. actual for office supplies. Jett may need some coaching on how to say ‘no’ to his coworkers, so that might be a goal as well.

As you wrap up the discussion you ask one more important question: Jett, what are you taking away from this conversation? This is important to confirm that Jett feels your support and understands the goals are the path to excellence.  Then you calendar your check-ins or have Jett calendar them for you both. This is especially important when you have seen a change in performance (remember how amazing Jett was in the beginning?) and want to be sure the employee doesn’t feel a sudden change in how you see them.

The present, past, future approach is designed to address how we move forward, and calling this a feedforward process is one way to be sure you include opportunity for the Jett’s in your firm.

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About the Author

Judy Hissong
Judy Hissong, CLM, is the President of Nesso Strategies. Nesso is the Italian word for connection, and her company is built on the passion of human potential and bottom line improvement. She writes, speaks, trains, and coaches on leadership, wellness, workplace engagement, and communication and conflict skills. Find her on twitter @judyhissong; email; phone 619.546.7885; and join her LinkedIn Group “Engaging Legal Leaders” for more conversation about leadership in law firms.