People who are ‘brutally honest’ are more interested in brutality than in honesty. – Alan Cohen
Every now and then a new attorney reaches out to me and asks for career advice. I am always happy to help, since mentoring is rare in the legal profession and I remember how difficult entering the profession was for me almost twenty years ago. It is not uncommon for attorneys of all experience levels to need support, either. After all, a competitive firm culture can turn into a cutthroat one fairly easily. There is a good reason why there are the same number of attorneys leaving the profession each year as entering it. The legal work isn’t the problem – it’s the fact that lawyers are stuck working with… well, lawyers.
An associate in a small firm reached out to me because he was having difficulty after only two years in practice. He worked for a partner whom he described as “really smart”. However, he felt the partner expected him to know a lot more than he did. When the associate asked for help, he was criticized for asking. No matter how hard he tried, he only received negative feedback. The associate felt like he just couldn’t win, no matter what he did. I knew the partner he worked for to have a very difficult personality, so none of what the associate recounted to me was surprising.
This kind of working relationship would be difficult for anyone, but it was an especially jarring experience for a young man who was used to being praised for his efforts. He had always done well in school. His teachers and professors had always liked him. The negative criticism was disorienting to him. He was – in fact – a competent attorney. Unfortunately, his experience is common.
At some point, regardless of our field of work, just about every one of us will be told by someone we consider “really smart” or more experienced than us that we simply don’t measure up. Those new to a work environment feel the most vulnerable and are therefore most susceptible to self-doubt as a result.
When we receive feedback, it should always be considered. However, it is important to distinguish between well-meaning constructive criticism motivated by another’s need to support us from destructive criticism motivated by another’s need to attack us. Some feel that in order to get ahead or to maintain a position of power attacking the people around them serves to advance them.
If you stop and tune in to how you feel after someone offers up criticism, you will be able to tell in which category it falls. You will want to distance yourself from destructive criticizers because their feedback feels like an attack. Constructive criticizers feel like supportive well-meaning people you can trust.
Here is my advice to you, if you are doubting yourself after a bout of destructive criticism. There’s a scene in Legally Blonde where Professor Stromwell walks up to Elle Woods and says, “If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life… you’re not the girl I thought you were.” Picture me saying that to you now.
Once the associate was able to look past the partner’s image as a “really smart” and respected member of our field of law, he realized that the partner’s behavior was adversarial toward him, rather than supportive. He then became clear that he should not take in the partner’s “advice”. He also learned how to spot similar behaviors in others, so that he could continue on his chosen career path, avoiding destructive criticizers along the way. Here are the other things I discussed with him:
- Don’t Take It Personally. Some people are hyper-focused on furthering their own career, at the expense of their own employees or colleagues. Anyone who can’t seamlessly fall in line with their goals are treated like obstacles they are perceived to be. You are not the first person to be treated like a nuisance and you won’t be the last. Don’t hold your breath waiting for these types to suddenly pick up people skills. Save yourself the aggravation and just get out of their way.
- You Are Capable. Receiving negative feedback about your work can make you doubt your own abilities. Don’t be drawn in by someone’s reputation, gray hair and pinstriped suit, pedigree or alma mater. If you don’t have enough experience, you will gain it. If you don’t know something right away, you will learn it. Everyone was a newbie once. Take some time to be really still, clear out the negative chatter in your head and remember what self-confidence feels like. You do, in fact, have the ability to do whatever you put your mind to – and do it really well. Know that.
- Trust Your Own Judgment First. Many of us are used to seeking and receiving approval from outside of ourselves. Well, it’s time to trust your own judgment first. Working in the real world will teach you that life isn’t fair. Good work does not always translate into good feedback. Some are on the lookout for capable colleagues in order to maintain their position and a newbie feeling vulnerable can make for an easy target. If someone gives you negative feedback, stop and ask yourself if you agree. If you do, know that making mistakes is normal. Now you know where to improve. However, if you disagree with any feedback, trust your own judgment.
- Find Your Support System. Distance yourself from destructive criticizers. Instead, find the people you can trust to give you honest feedback, designed to be supportive. You may find these people inside your organization, industry, at a local group or association or within your own family and friends. Thanks to the internet, you can find just about any group or organization designed to provide support. Stick to those people with whom you feel safe asking any questions you have – even those that seem silly.
If you try to continue your career without a little bit of Teflon, you’ll suffer from a terrible case of low self-esteem, or, worse yet, you’ll adopt some “prick” behaviors in order to survive. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and don’t let one stupid prick ruin your life.