This weekend, as I was revising a position statement an associate had drafted for me and I wrote that an argument was a good argument, I was reminded of a slightly sad discussion with another associate that made me question how we as lawyers generally relate to employees. All too often in the desire to make things perfect for clients and the rush to meet litigation deadlines, I think we edit documents only to fix the bad and not praise the good. I suspect that holds true not just for how we edit documents but how we address performance.
In the situation I am remembering, I had made some mark-ups to the document, including the normal deletions and re-workings of arguments. In one section, I thought the associate had made a particularly unique and persuasive argument using a fact I would not have considered. I wrote “GOOD” next to the paragraph. When the associate received the mark-ups, he came down to see me. Although I had not really worked with him prior to this assignment, the associate had worked for the Firm for several years and was generally thought to be a very good performer by those with whom he normally worked.
He had one question about one argument I wanted to add and then said he just did not understand what I was saying in another comment. He handed me the document and pointed to where I had written GOOD. I laughed as I figured he simply could not read my handwriting (my capital G may more closely resemble an ancient rune than a “G”). This is the conversation that followed:
Me: Oh, that says good.
Him (slightly puzzled): Right. I saw that. I didn’t know where you wanted me to add good.
Me: No. No. I meant the argument was good. It was an interesting argument that I had not thought of. I just wanted to let you know it was a good argument.
Him (completely confused and staring at the paper): No one has ever told me that something was good.
It was pretty obvious to me that this was a failure on our part. Before I wound myself patting myself on the back for being a good supervisor, there are times I know that I am equally guilty of forgetting to tell subordinates about the things they are doing well. I think of this story every now and again to remind myself to take more time to address the good and not only the bad.
I am also reminded of this story when I am faced with a client who is confused when an employee they think is a good employee files a harassment claim. I have spoken with supervisors who say they do not understand the claim that the supervisor is overly critical of the employee. They typically point me to the annual review which is basically positive and take special pains to point out that the employee “met expectations” and was not rated as “needs improvement.” Good arguments to be sure and ones I generally would use to demonstrate a lack of animus.
Sometimes what comes out in the litigation is that despite the “meets expectation” review, on a daily basis the only feedback received is negative. Even in situations where the negative feedback is valid as the employee really did need to improve, I understand how this might affect employees. After a while of only hearing the negative, it is not hard to imagine that an employee would feel a supervisor did not like him or her. Imagine how that perception may change if the supervisor was pointing out the good with the bad.
Just a little food for thought. Whether you think you need to change your management style or not, I can tell you that the associate in the above story started seeking out more opportunities to work with me after receiving the positive feedback. I quickly learned what the others who worked with him already knew — that he was smart, conscientious, exercised sound legal judgment, and was willing to put in whatever hours were necessary to complete his tasks. In short, I wound up with an associate who made my life a whole lot easier.