16 April 2019
Management Meeting

For many years I’ve taken the view that the best way to provide “constructive feedback” to a reluctant team member in a Law Firm is to start with a story of my own personal failing or learning experience from a similar stage in my career.

Not only does it make the task of pointing out a shortcoming less confronting, but it disarms and engages a less experienced team member and they’re generally more accepting of the advice that might otherwise be seen a simple criticism.

I’ve never seen any academic support for the approach, but now it seems, the clever folk at Harvard have cottoned on to this self-deprecating Aussie style of checking in with our teams.

A recent piece of research by Assistant Professor of Business administration, Alison Wood Brooks suggests that to get your message across effectively, you need to be prepared to admit to your own failures. She says that “If you’re highly successful, your achievements are obvious. It’s more novel and inspiring for others to learn about your mistakes. What’s exciting about this research is that we’re trying to chip away at the resentment that comes with envy and move people toward admiration instead.”

The problem, as Wood Brooks sees it, is that successful leaders who only talk about their achievements stir up “malicious envy” in their subordinates. This emotion becomes destructive according to her research, and tall poppy syndrome does its work; making people want their leader to fall down a rung or two!

Wood Brooks points out that her previous research has found that malicious envy results in workers becoming obstructionist, less co-operative, feeling justified in acting unethically and eventually creating a toxic workplace. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, this style doesn’t sully the reputation or standing of the leader. Assistant Professor Wood Brooks says that provided that the leader has at least moderate success behind them, “ colleagues have no less admiration for a leader’s accomplishments if they know about these failures, nor does it affect their perception of the person’s status.”

So is it time to call out the self-indulgent, conceited and arrogant supervision of narcissistic managers? And should we be encouraging our leaders, especially in law firms, to talk openly of past failures and what was learned from those mistakes? If it’s now considered good practice to talk to our teams of faux pas from our own careers, that’s probably a blessing for me – as I’ll never struggle to find a conversation starter!