Creating Psychological Safety to Improve Feedback at Your Law Firm  

psychological safety

The Commission on Professionalism recently delivered our Courthouse Professionalism Training for the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Sixth Municipal District in Markham Courthouse.

The exercise allows courthouse personnel to experience their courthouse from the perspective of court users, encouraging them to discuss ways of enhancing professionalism in their protocols and procedures.

The session involves interactive skits, discussion of access to justice resources and listening skills, and my favorite part: breakout sessions. During the breakout sessions, small groups of attendees are asked three questions:

  1. What about your work in the courthouse do you find the most rewarding?
  2. What prevents you from achieving this every day? What are the barriers?
  3. What changes in the courthouse will improve what you’re able to achieve, and the justice you deliver to the public?

These sessions always uncover hidden pain points and frustrations that people experience in their work. What is really inspiring is that those concerns usually come with clearly articulated solutions from people at all levels of the courthouse working community.

This got me thinking about non-traditional reporting hierarchies, 360 feedback, and my favorite principle, which is Principle 5 of the Toyota Way: “Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.

The benefits of 360-degree feedback

You have likely heard of anonymous 360-degree feedback as a method of gathering deeper insight into team dynamics, avoiding bias in performance reviews, and promoting collaboration.

Before we dive into what it is, a point of clarification: 360-degree feedback can be focused on the individual, the team, or the organization as a whole.

This blog discusses getting feedback about your organization, as a way of uncovering inefficiencies and barriers that senior leadership hasn’t identified. For a focus on individuals, check out this article from HBR.

There are a number of ways of implementing 360-degree feedback but they all focus on gathering feedback on a topic anonymously from 360 degrees around you. This means your peers, managers, direct reports, etc.

Sounds intimidating, right? I’ve been through it, and it was both the best and most stressful workplace experience I have ever had. However, I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand who they are and how others see them.

Another benefit to implementing 360-degree feedback is the feeling of being heard. Recognition significantly contributes to employee satisfaction so gathering and acting on feedback can support a positive team culture and a sense of trust in the organization.

When implemented properly, a 360-degree feedback review will support the psychological safety of all involved. When implemented poorly, it can create pressure and anxiety.

A look at psychological safety

When I first heard the term psychological safety with regards to work, I struggled with it, as it seemed too amorphous and, being British, counterintuitive to the requirement of having a stiff upper lip (we’re checked every four years by a man in a bowler hat).

However, as I dug in, I realized my happiest and most fulfilling work experiences weren’t related to pay, but to times when I felt safe to share my perspective and would be heard.

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, describes psychological safety as “[A]n absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.”

Psychological safety at work is the extent to which employees feel comfortable expressing themselves and taking risks without the fear of negative consequences such as retribution, ridicule, or rejection.

When psychological safety is present in the workplace, employees are more likely to feel valued, respected, and supported, which can lead to increased engagement, productivity, creativity, and innovation.

Organizations that promote a culture of psychological safety may benefit from:

  1. Improved communication, which can lead to better collaboration and better decision-making.
  2. Increased learning and growth from employees who are not afraid to make mistakes. This can lead to improved performance, increased confidence, and a stronger sense of fulfillment.
  3. Better job satisfaction and retention, which can help organizations save time and money on recruiting and training.
  4. Greater diversity and inclusion, as employees are more likely to feel safe expressing their unique perspectives and experiences.

So how does this relate to 360-degree feedback? Well, if you want to understand and improve the processes and systems in your law firm, you need feedback from multiple sources—from the board room to the mailroom.

However, to receive accurate and valuable feedback, the respondents must feel comfortable sharing, which requires a culture of psychological safety.

If you are interested in learning more about cultivating psychology safety in your law firm or organization, check out this article from Forbes.

*Please note: It goes without saying, how safe someone feels at work is influenced by a multitude of characteristics and experiences, including position, gender, race, sexual orientation, family and relationship history, workplace experiences, mental health, tenure, etc.

Gathering 360-degree feedback

While improving your law firm’s psychological safety is an ongoing process, creating an awareness of the need and developing related practices is a start.

When it comes to best practices on gathering feedback on your organization’s culture or how it can improve its processes, here are some things a firm should consider:

  • Be clear on your goal. What exactly are you looking to learn from employees? What questions are important to ask?
  • Use multi-channel feedback. Different people are comfortable in different settings. This may include one-on-one meetings, engagement surveys, team meetings, employee appreciation and recognition tools, town hall discussions, or even simple, anonymous feedback.
  • Provide training on giving and receiving feedback to identify pain points, uncomfortable feelings, constructive responses, etc.
  • Explain the why and the how of the process, and be sure to communicate any changes that are made as a result of feedback. This will reinforce the validity of the process and ensure further engagement in future feedback initiatives.
  • Be transparent with the feedback you receive, even negative feedback. This does not necessarily mean to make all comments public, but if employees get a sense that you are cherry-picking for a positive spin, you will lose trust in the process.
  • Establish clear feedback channels and processes. Reiterate that the feedback provided should be focused on the business processes, culture and practices, not any particular person.

As you can imagine, this blog just scratches the surface of a whole body of work that spans organizational psychology, change management, learning and development, and leadership principles.

However, I hope it has made you reflect on whether your law firm promotes a culture of holistic, ongoing improvement and employee engagement.

I encourage you to leave a comment with your thoughts below. I could use the feedback.

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