Rob Marrs, our Head of Education, looks at the best way to give effective, constructive feedback to a trainee that not only helps them develop, but fosters a strong learning environment.

In my last blog on training, I spoke about helping a trainee who is struggling. Today’s focus considers the steps to take when you’ve identified something going awry and the immediate response.

The starting point has to be that trainees are learning and training.

Mistakes happen (and it is better for everyone if they are highlighted early and dealt with quickly). Sometimes development doesn’t happen as quickly as you’d like. Things you expect a trainee to be able to do may take longer than you think or… whisper it quietly… you are expecting too much, too soon.

Let’s consider a simple example.

You are a partner at a large firm, Gage Whitney LLP, and you have a trainee called Sam. A client has highlighted to you that they had emailed Sam on a relatively simple matter and that he hadn’t replied, even when chased, after 24 hours.

When you asked Sam about this he acknowledged this was the case. He noted that he hadn’t known the answer, was embarrassed about this, and he didn’t want to raise with you. He had hoped to find the answer elsewhere, hadn’t done so due to pressure of work and, as time ticked on, he had just hidden the issue.

So far, so reasonably innocuous.

What are the real issues at stake?

  1. Sam didn’t know the answer to a simple question.
  2. That this lack of knowledge led to him not raising it with you.
  3. There may be an issue in your approachability.
  4. There may be an issue with pressure of work.
  5. Fundamentally, you’ve got an annoyed client and that really does matter.

Having answered the client’s question, you ask Sam to join you to give him some feedback.

How would you do about that? How many of us think through the feedback we are about to give? How many of us link feedback to performance and development as well as against whichever issue has occurred?

Before giving feedback ask two questions.

Firstly, quietly to yourself, ask are you in the right frame of mind to give quality meaningful feedback that will improve the person?

If the answer to that question is anything other than yes, then wait.

There is no point giving feedback that doesn’t help the person improve. In the example above, if the trainee is worried enough about your reaction not to raise an important matter with you, what do you think berating them will do? It is unlikely to lead to a culture of candour or psychological safety.

Secondly, actually ask out loud to the person involved whether or not they are ready to receive feedback?

Build a culture that allows them to say "no". They can’t say no forever, but they should at least be able to say "not right now". If they do say no, then make it clear you’ll follow-up the next day.

There are any number of mnemonics and methodologies for giving feedback. Each is pretty much the same. Here’s my attempt.

  • Why have you chosen to give them feedback?
    • "I’d like to talk to you about the issues raised by the our client, Eldrick Woods, the house-builders."
  • What happened?
    • "When dealing with a matter for them, you were contacted on the Monday with a question and you didn’t respond. The client followed up by an email the next day. The client waited another day before escalating the matter to me." This is all factual. You are not judging them or apportioning blame.
  • Why did it happen?
    • "You told me that this was because you didn’t know the answer to the question the client raised and that you were worried about showing your lack of knowledge to me."
  • What you would like to happen?
    • "In the future, if you are unsure of an answer, it is important that you speak to someone who will know the answer quickly or help you find it. You are training and you won’t know all the answers. This will help you learn and develop, and also mean that we answer client’s questions quickly. If I am unavailable and the matter is urgent, then do speak to another member of the team for help.

"If the client hadn’t got in touch with me, this matter could have become a bigger problem.

"It is important that clients get the right answers timeously and that you are giving a good level of client care. If we don’t get client care right, there might be ramifications for the firm – losing clients, clients querying their fees because of service or, worst case, is a complaint. But more importantly than all of that, we pride ourselves on the service we offer to clients."

If a trainee got feedback like that – and I realise this is a simplistic example – they’d know: what had gone wrong, why it had gone wrong and why that was important, and they would know how to approach a similar situation differently in the future.

More than that though, you’d show yourself to have thought deeply about the matter in a manner that focused on client care and trainee development.

This would help build a stronger trainee/trainer relationship and lead to a better learning environment. Who wouldn’t be more open to speaking to a boss about a matter who spoke to them like that?

We’ve all seen and received bad feedback. If we are honest, we’ve given it too (mea culpa!).

At worst, it is about the other person venting or showing off. This sort of feedback makes them feel better and the person they are training feel worse… and doesn’t even have the side benefit of improving performance!

At best, and more often, feedback is not thought through with a clear goal in mind. "Don’t do it again" is only so helpful (everyone who has ever made a mistake knows that already).

Good feedback should be specific rather than generic, designed to help, and be based on facts rather than opinion. Aim for your feedback to illuminate rather than throw shade and you won’t go too far wrong.

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