A guest post by Gary Richards
Talented lawyers are sometimes bypassed for future assignments because they slipped a little on work that was delegated to them in the past. Partners may sometimes solve the problem by deciding to not put them on future assignments rather than giving them corrective feedback from which they could benefit.
For example, consider the following scenario: You have a competent set of lawyers and paralegals working with you on an important matter. However, one of the more legally talented members of the team has recently been coming in late with assigned tasks, or has not done it exactly as assigned, or both.
He always seems to understand exactly what you want when he accepts the task. After handing off a task, you always seek confirmation that he understands by asking questions like, “Do you have any questions?” or “Do you understand exactly what I want and when?” He always assures you that he has “got it.” Yet there is a recent pattern of incompleteness and lateness you would like to avoid in the future.
You are reluctant to complain to him because you know that he is quite busy working on other matters for other partners. By and large, his work quality is good and clients like him. You also don’t want to seem dictatorial when you hand off work for fear of insulting him or demotivating him, because you could really use his help if only he were accurate and timely.
However, unless this situation improves, you are considering not assigning him to any future work that is deadline-sensitive or has nuanced issues requiring significant attention to detail. That way you would save time dealing with his performance problem and wouldn’t have to waste your time coaching him on how to improve. You believe that any intelligent and experienced matter team members should do what he says he will do, on time. After all, you don’t recall anyone ever having to pressure you to correct your lack of detail or timeliness.
This is a fairly common situation. Unfortunately, deciding to save time by not assigning him to future matters is also fairly common. But it is a costly and shortsighted solution to deprive the offending lawyer of needed coaching. Furthermore, taking that approach would mean failing your responsibility as a partner to provide professional development of those working on your team.
The tension in this situation stems from your natural preference to avoid conflict, compounded by not knowing how to ensure clarity at the moment of handoff.
A better solution is grounded in two simple concepts: tactfully require people to repeat your instructions, and schedule a mid-point review.
Tactfully require people to repeat your instructions
When you encounter a performance problem like the one above, the best first step is not to ask “What is wrong with him?” Instead, ask “What can I do differently?” The truth is that getting work done on time, as expected, is usually much more dependent on how the work is handed off and monitored than it is affected by a flaw in the recipient.
The usual solution to this situation is to do a better job finding out exactly what he actually understands to be required and by when, no matter how well you think you have presented it. Simply asking a question like these will not uncover true understanding:
- “Do you have any questions?”(Not really.)
- “Is it clear what I need?”(I think so.)
- “Do you understand exactly what I want and when?”(Sure, I’ll get right on it.)
Even if they are less than certain of the details, most people are not comfortable admitting that they are unclear or confused, especially if you outrank them. So those kinds of questions usually do not learn what it is they actually understand.
He may even demonstrate rapt listening and industrious note taking as you describe what you want, all creating the illusion of clear understanding even though some details may be missed. It is likely that the listener believes that he does understand it, because he is clear on what he thinks that he heard.
There is only one way to know for sure what he understand: Have him immediately repeat his understanding of your instructions so that you can compare what he says to your intended instructions. Such a request to repeat instructions received is rarely made because it could be taken as an insult to his ability or a veiled accusation of inattention. But there is a skillful way to request that instructions be repeated without being insulting or accusatory: Format the question as an “I” message, not as a “you” message.
Faulty way to request feedback of instructions (insulting and accusatory “you” message):
“Please repeat what I said so I can tell whether you got it all correctly.”
Effective way to request feedback of instructions (non-insulting and non-accusatory “I”):
“That was a lot of detail, Bob, and I described what I need pretty quickly. Would you mind repeating for me your understanding of those instructions and timing so that I can see if I said it clearly?”
As you listen to his repetition of your instructions, you can compare it with what you intended. In effect, this way you are comparing what is in his brain to what is in your brain. If you hear an omission or misunderstanding, you can immediately say, “What I meant to say was…” and provide the correction, possibly rephrasing it more clearly or in a different way to highlight its importance. It doesn't matter whether you did say it correctly the first time or not. What does matter instead is to correct the misunderstanding immediately, not to assign blame for the misunderstanding by saying something like, “No, you have it wrong.”
Schedule a mid-point review
Once it is established that the instructions are understood, the next thing to help ensure performance is to schedule a follow-up midway through the duration of the task. You have a right, even an obligation, to follow up to ensure that the work is on schedule, especially if there have been past problems with timely performance. Get agreement at the time of hand-off as to when you will follow up midway, and why. Unscheduled follow-ups like, “How are you doing on….” will appear that you don’t trust him. Also, he may have work appropriately scheduled on the task at a time closer to the deadline than when your surprise follow-up occurs, causing your question to be an unfair irritation that results in no information.
Instead, it is much better at the time the task is handed off to schedule a time-certain mid-point follow up. For example, if you hand-off a task on Wednesday and the deadline for completion is the following Tuesday by noon, say something like this: “How about I touch base around 10:30 A.M. Friday to be sure that you have everything you need and see if there are any questions?”
When a mid-point follow-up time like that is agreed upon, several things are put into play:
- It becomes more likely that the doer will be further along in their work on the task by the follow-up time of Friday at 10:30 than if no follow-up had been scheduled
- With that stated reason for the follow-up, the doer understands that it is to be a helpful event, not a sign of mistrust
- You avoid having to interrupt the doer with “How are you coming?” whenever your anxiety compels you. Instead, you can relax until Friday at 10:30, knowing that you have plenty of time afterward to get things back on track if needed.
These two simple tactics can solve delegation problems, save you time by avoiding performance problems, and fulfill your obligation to constructively develop the skills of those working on your teams.