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Bringing back the human touch

Bringing back the human touch


Harry Perrin recommends bringing back the human element to feedback exercises

Most of us are familiar with ‘360-degree feedback’: you ask for feedback on your work not just from your manager or supervisor, but from those you manage or work alongside.

I have worked for a law firm which employed this tool in an appraisal context, but I did not warm to it. It is not as revolutionary as first it appears. It does not really democratise the appraisal process, give a voice to those further down the ladder, or hold accountable those above them. In fact, it reinforces old-style hierarchies. It tends to be your manager who requests and reviews the feedback, and indeed whose opinion of the feedback really holds sway.The 360-degree feedback approach I saw was applied to workers at a certain level of seniority, across the entire firm. This broad application – and the fact that the feedback was gathered online – gave the process a mechanical feel, and the human element of the exercise suffered as a result.

Some prominent workplace commentators are endeavouring to shift companies’ focus back onto the individual generally, away from broad policies and processes. US writer Susan Cain, herself a lawyer, has highlighted how some office norms – the open plan layout, for example, or group ‘ideas sharing’ sessions – do not suit certain people, typically introverts. Author Liz Ryan rails against demoralising online recruitment processes where applicants’ CVs end up in a ‘black hole’. Features of the recruitment black hole include electronic filtering of CVs by keyword, where no human ever casts an eye over them. Ryan encourages job seekers to write CVs with a ‘human voice’, free from jargon and keywords, with a view to connecting with an actual human reader.

Simply talking to fellow professionals at all levels can be a much more human experience than the 360-degree feedback mechanism. I recommend finding and speaking with mentors. It can be highly insightful and, when done on an informal basis, can be a source of valuable, non-judgemental feedback. If it is outside the workplace setting, you will not have the nagging fear that somehow an element of the conversation will be fed back somewhere you might not want it to go.

I would also recommend making yourself available for others to approach you for informal mentoring. I do this for students, and have done since I was a trainee solicitor. I have learned things about myself, reframed how I think about my profession, and met a lot of interesting people.I also seize opportunities to have conversations with my peers, lawyers who have been in the profession about the same amount of time as I have. We do not just talk about the state of the market, or how to develop soft skills in a hard-nosed office. If I ask for help – say, on a discrete point of property law – and they are amenable, then a) I get an answer to my question, and b) they tend to ask me something back, which strengthens our relationship and develops respect on both sides.

When used as part of an appraisal process, consulting colleagues at different levels of experience is called 360-degree feedback. When you take matters into your own hands, and simply make a habit of having conversations with a range of different people, your perspective is constantly challenged, and you stay alert and more engaged with your work. It does not have a fancy name though.

Harry Perrin is an in-house solicitor in the media sector