When you start your legal career, you enter a period in your life when the metrics aren’t clear and feedback is few and far between. It is often difficult to know if you are doing a good job; however, it is rarely difficult to know if you aren’t doing a good job–that type of feedback is readily provided.
So in a profession where the only feedback you typically get is negative feedback, how do you keep those experiences from making you paranoid?
In today’s blog we focus on getting clear on where negative feedback fits in your life and how to keep it from bogging down your best work.
You are practicing law. You are doing the hard thing. You might feel like you are operating blindly, unsure if that last email you sent made any sense or addressed the appropriate legal issues. Projects are submitted and become part of a vast cone of silence. It is often difficult to know whether that silence is an indication of your failure or a silent thank you for a job well done. In the midst of this silent treatment, you periodically receive some feedback. Negative feedback.
That shouldn’t have take that long.
This shouldn’t have been that hard.
You missed an important issue.
You clearly did not understand the scope of the project.
You completely missed the point.
When many of us receive that feedback and when that is the ONLY feedback we receive, it breeds an odd form of professional paranoia. We know that we didn’t do a good job in those particular instances but we don’t have any clarity on when we HAVE done a good job. It’s like being blindfolded and sent to navigate a minefield. It’s no wonder that this type of consistent negative feedback, without more, makes it difficult to get back on the horse. Usually the result is that we spend more and more time agonizing over every minute detail of every later project hoping that we are getting better at anticipating the mines. The delightful insecurity delay!
We take that negative feedback and camp out with our self-created paranoia.
While we would like some positive feedback, we would almost prefer the silence than the sudden, surprising criticism, like a slap in the face. When we live in that paranoia, projects take longer and our brain becomes filled with self-doubt and negative chatter. It’s hard to focus on the task at hand in between beating yourself up for your mistakes and worrying that you are about to mess up again. The natural result is that we spin in this insecurity, take longer to get simple tasks done, and start to cower in fear of any future mistakes. (The mistake spiral.)
When your work is greeted with silence punctuated only by negative feedback, it can be difficult to be confident. In order to dig out of this pit, you have to start pursuing additional facts and facing some new realities.
You are not perfect. You will never be perfect. No one else in your professional orbit is perfect.
The first step in getting through insecurity is to get your head out of your @$$ and get some perspective. You are not perfect and neither is anyone around you. We all make mistakes in our practice and we all especially make mistakes when we were just starting out. Do not allow yourself one F-ing moment to believe anything else. No one has it easier than you — what does that even mean?! — and everyone is learning. You are not a special snowflake. You will make mistakes just like everyone else. Get over it.
Seek and ye shall receive!
Recognize that lawyers are busy myopic beings. We focus on the dumpster fire at hand and leave little room for much else. That means that normal, professional courtesies go out the window. Providing constructive feedback is not likely at the top of their priority list so if you want more constructive feedback, you are going to have to ask for it. You are not at the mercy of your bosses or your work. Constructive feedback is not parade candy — you don’t have to sit back and hope that they throw some your way. Get out there and rip the candy out of their miserly little hands! When you receive negative feedback, it is perfectly acceptable to ask if there were other aspects of the project that DID go well that you can continue to improve upon.
Schedule periodic check-ins following/during large projects to see how you are doing.
Ask the questions — am I on par with where you would want me to be? Are there areas where I excel? What other areas can I improve upon?
If you don’t start taking ownership of your career and asking for the type of feedback that you want, you will be left in a vacuum of negative feedback and nothing more. You will be at the mercy of your bosses’ individual experiences–whatever is happening in their lives behind the scenes that may or may not play a role in the ass-chewing you just received. You have to seek out more information. You have to seek out both sides of the story. Remember that we all have a bias toward negativity so you are going to have to work to gather information on the other side of the story.
Any feedback is a sign of their investment in you
Focus on the fact that they are giving you feedback; it is a sign that they are invested in your growth and improvement. The only time I withheld feedback — negative or positive — was when I had concluded that the attorney was a lost cause, a bad fit. If they are giving you feedback it means they know you can improve. At some level they believe in you. Do not overlook that fact.
Be honest with yourself
When you find yourself reeling after some negative feedback and it is making it difficult to execute any task, start focusing on your internal self-talk. Listen to the things you are telling yourself. Ask yourself why you are having a hard time moving forward. Usually it sounds something like this: You can’t mess up again; he thinks you’re idiot; how did you miss that? What the hell happened? You are never going to do a good job from that headspace. If your friend had received the same feedback, would you let them talk to themselves the same way?
If the reason you aren’t sending that email is because you are afraid of messing up again — send the damn email. Do not let your fear of more negative feedback impede your success. Accept that negative feedback is part of it and allow yourself to be open to the possibility that you are, in fact, good at your job — if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there. Recognize that the reason you aren’t sending the email, finishing the project, whatever is, is because you are afraid. Is that a good reason to delay? Do you feel good about letting some vibration in your body (fear) keep you from doing your best work?
Recognize your fear and your negative self-talk and start being honest with yourself about where your real work lies. When you allow negative feedback to paralyze you it’s because of what you are making that feedback mean about yourself. It means that you have more work to do.
Whether you sign up to work with me or not, the fact of the matter is that we all need support to do hard things. From professional athletes to CEOs, they all have a support team. Find yours. Whether it’s a mentor, an affinity group, or a close friend, find someone who will help you keep a clear perspective on things. Free support is available all around you. Find it and stop twisting in the wind.
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash