Trebuchet, a website dedicated to the legal profession, from time to time asks Kate to advise attorneys about their career challenges. It considers her the “Dear Abby” of lawyers’ professional laments!
Negative Performance Reviews Happen
Attorney: I’m a mid-level associate and just got some tough criticism in my performance review. There was praise, too, but this is the first time I’ve heard anything negative. I’m really upset and don’t know what to do.
Kate McGuinness: I understand your discomfort, but try to see this as an opportunity for personal and professional growth.
1. Chill your inner perfectionist. Remember no one is flawless. In fact, the very way we learn is by making mistakes. An error signals something has to change. Call to mind some of your heroes who have gone on to great success after experiencing failure. Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey are among the many who did so.
2. Ask yourself if the criticism is painful because it mirrors something negative you have suspected about yourself. Are you thinking, “Maybe I really am . . . ?”
3. Step back and consider whether the degree of “upset” you feel is truly merited. Learning to tamp down your reactivity is a skill that will serve you well both at work and at home. This is a topic that deserves more than a paragraph and could be explored in a coaching session. The best advice I can offer here is the technique described in step 4.
4. Process your emotions in writing. Describe how you feel about the criticism itself as well as the experience of receiving it. Journaling allows the writer to become more objective by acting as a reporter and diminishes an emotional charge.
5. Write down in your own words the useful tidbits contained in the criticism – the tidbits that make sense, those that you can do something about. Turn the pain into education. This also helps you see the criticism more dispassionately.
6. Turn those useful tidbits into written, well-developed goals. In general, goals should be measurable and have a specific time frame. Again, this is an area where individual coaching can be extremely helpful.
7. Talk to a trusted advisor who may be able to help you put the criticism in perspective and decide how to process it. Don’t isolate yourself and stew in misery.
8. Develop a catch phrase or affirmation that you can use to counter the pain that arises whenever you recall the criticism. Choose words that resound with your own psyche, but here are some suggestions: “I’m confident enough to take criticism and learn from it.” “I grow when I learn from my mistakes.” “Feedback helps me improve.”
9. Ask for an appointment with the person who delivered the review so you can clarify how to improve your performance if you need more information. Consider presenting the goals you developed in step 6 and ask for possible refinements.
10. Be kind to yourself and quiet your inner critic. Yes, like the rest of humanity, you are imperfect. However, there is much more to you than your performance.
Let your review launch you into a career-long habit of adopting a growth mindset. When faced with adversity, consider how you can use it to develop your talents and abilities.
A Young Female Attorney Struggles
For Respect in a Male-Dominated Firm
Young Attorney: I’m a youngish female lawyer in a very male-dominated firm. I feel like no one I work with takes me seriously. How can I get the respect I deserve and show people I’m competent, even though most partners treat me like a kid
Kate McGuinness: You have a terrific start on achieving your goal: you realize you deserve respect. Here are a few suggestions to help you get it.
1. Seek out responsibilities that demonstrate your commitment.
Perhaps the local court is adopting an e-filing system. Volunteer to learn it and help others in the office with it. Maybe there’s a routine assignment that anyone on the team could do, but it has a short time frame. Offer to take it on even if it means losing sleep.
2. Present a professional image.
Your posture and body language can enhance your image as a competent attorney. Here’s a critical bit of homework for you: watch Amy Cuddy’s brilliant Ted Talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.”
To avoid being “treated like a kid,” dress like a serious professional. Even if it’s casual Friday, pop a blazer over your jeans. Women with bangs drooping over their eyes and high ponytails look young. Don’t want to change your style? That’s entirely your call – just be aware of the impression you create.
3. Speak in a professional manner.
The words you choose and how you deliver them can have a lasting impact. Here are a few recommendations, but to implement them you’ll need to become aware of your present speech patterns.
- Present your ideas confidently in declarative statements
- Cut to the chase
- Speak slowly
- Lower the pitch of your voice if it’s especially high
- Make and maintain eye contact
- Hedge your position by using phrases such as “What if” or “Maybe this will work”
- End your sentences with an up or rising tone as if you were asking a question
- Clutter your speech with fillers such as “um,” “I think” or “you know”
- Use self-deprecating humor
- Apologize unless you truly made a mistake. When something, even a minor something, goes amiss many women respond almost automatically with “I’m sorry.” Unless you know that you blew it, don’t apologize.
How does your speech compare? Record yourself to get the most accurate answer. (Feedback from friends and relatives can help but it may be biased.) Identify one habit you want to change and practice for a week.
Record yourself again. Note the improvements and identify another target.
Repeat as necessary.
4. Identify one or two goals from this “session” and go for it.
Because this is our only time to “meet,” I’ve offered lots of suggestions. Consider them a menu. Pick a couple of behaviors you’d like to change and start with those. Tackling too many goals at once could leave you frustrated. When you’re comfortable with your first round of changes, you can take on a few more.
As you grow and navigate these changes hold firmly onto your belief that you deserve their respect — because you do!
Coping with a Constantly Critical Partner
Attorney: I’m dealing with a very critical partner at work, and I’m losing patience. He’s constantly belittling me in front of clients and co-counsel and thinks everything I do is wrong. It’s not really feasible to work for other people right now. Do you have any tips for coping?
Kate McGuinness: Here are some suggestions to help you both cope with this difficult situation and benefit from it.
- Understand the partner’s drivers. What are his hot buttons? Identify them and focus your efforts on making sure the tasks he cares about most are done well. Is he a typo nazi? Proof your work twice. Is he rabid about punctuality? Arrive early. Does he hate interruptions? Collect your questions and concerns and schedule a time to put all of them in front of him at once.
- Create a document trail. After getting oral instructions, write an email confirming your understanding of your assignment as well as the tasks he’s agreed to undertake.
- Anticipate what he will need and stay ahead of him. Arrange for conference rooms, catering, late night support and anything else he might require.
- Identify his weaknesses so you can support him better. Yes, I said support him better. You may be tempted to undercut him but that doesn’t help anyone in the long run. Organizations value team players. If you can make him look better, he’ll appreciate it and maybe even give you some credit.
- Avoid the temptation to spread tales of his mistreatment inside the firm. Complaining constantly to your peers may feel like a relief valve but repeating your woes only reinforces your unhappiness. Complaining to his peers deprives you of a team player merit badge and invites questions about the validity of his criticisms.
- Look for his redeeming traits. Challenge yourself to find at least one thing he does well and admire it.
- Ask yourself which, if any, of his criticisms are valid. This may be hard to do when you’re feeling besieged, but no one is perfect. Success in this job or any other will depend on your ability to accept and own your mistakes.
- Unless you identify an error that you have actually made, don’t take his criticism personally. Your boss’s unhappiness is most likely due to a personal or professional situation for which you have no responsibility — maybe he was born under a sullen star! Whatever the source of his bad temper, don’t let it undermine your self-esteem.
- Appreciate the lessons you’re learning. By adopting these suggestions, you’ll begin to acquire a key business skill: “managing up” or handling your relationship with a superior in a way that benefits both of you and your organization. (This works with difficult clients, too.) You’re also gaining valuable leadership insights. You’re learning how not to manage subordinates.
- Leave your sense of being abused on your doorstep when you go home. Don’t let your frustration pollute your time with your family.
By asking for coping tips, you’ve demonstrated the determination and resilience necessary to prevail. I have every confidence that you will.