How to give constructive feedback: Lessons from my favourite legal drama, Suits

Harvey’s attitude to feeding back on his colleague’s performance is all about tough love, but is this always the right approach?

As a Suits fan, I’ve watched as the relationship between leading characters Harvey and Mike develops. For those who aren’t familiar with the show, Harvey is a top lawyer who takes on a young apprentice, Mike, after being impressed by his photographic memory and quick initiative, despite Mike’s phoney law school credentials. The two have a fairly turbulent relationship, with Harvey frequently placing Mike in situations where he’s out of his depth, but when they work well together, nothing stops them succeeding.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it very clear that I do not see Harvey as the archetypal leader, but the relationship between the two provides an interesting case study on a topic that team managers frequently ask me about: how do I give my colleague constructive feedback and help him or her progress? Apparently nearly half of leaders find giving corrective feedback a “stressful and difficult experience”* so this is a common challenge. Here are a few tips to help, brought to life through the main characters of Suits:

1. Know your receiver’s EQ

Harvey is always extremely tough on his junior. Sometimes this works but sometimes he is  brutal and Mike appears almost broken: not what you want from a manager. The point we can take from this is that to give feedback effectively you have to know the emotional quotient (EQ) of your colleague. Ask yourself ‘is this individual likely to know what their key challenge is and are they already looking for my help on this? Or are they going to be blindsided?’ They may only be able to handle a small portion of the big picture at a time.

The best managers gauge  EQ and prevent their team members feeling overwhelmed. Before you meet, decide what single point will make the biggest difference now and focus on that.

2. Feed forward, not back

This is a simple but important tip that comes from American business coach Marshall Goldsmith. His theory is that people at all levels find it hard to criticise their colleagues. Rather than dissecting situations that have already happened, it is much easier and more constructive to talk about what the individual can do differently in the future. That way, the recipient can apply their learnings and move on from the past.

How does this apply to Harvey and Mike? Well, top law firms move fast and Harvey rarely seems to dwell on Mike’s past mistakes for more than a few minutes and frequently advises his protégé on what he should do differently going forward, often in the form of a challenge.

3. Have good intent  

The trouble with feedback is that it can be very emotional for both parties but a manager should never use a feedback session as a chance to vent or deliberately upset their colleague. If you go into the session knowing you are there to help your colleague fulfill their potential this will set the tone for the whole discussion and enable it to be well received.

Even in the dog-eat-dog world of Suits, where everyone is out for themselves, we can see that Harvey has good intentions for Mike. He really wants him to succeed.

4. Play to the receiver’s strengths

Mike is more sensitive and better at empathising with clients than his boss. Harvey is aware of this and will frequently send Mike into situations where he knows this side of Mike’s character will help him succeed. A good manager plays to their team’s individual strengths. If a team member comes away from a feedback session knowing what makes them great this will have a powerful emotional effect, building confidence and motivating them to improve their overall performance, without the need to dwell on weaknesses.

5. Give them your full attention

A simple point but an important one is to be fully present in the moment when you are feeding back on someone. This time is about your team member, not you, and if you are fully focused on them your feedback will have a stronger impact. So when we see Harvey and Mike striding down the street with coffee in hand having intense conversations about the latter’s performance, we generally feel that Harvey is still present in the moment. Perhaps he has deliberately picked an informal environment that he knows Mike will respond well to, as the setting for these discussions can also influence their outcome.

6. Build a trusted relationship

Feeding back on someone is an important responsibility and your team member’s views of you will have a huge impact on whether or not they believe in you and want to take your advice. Building a strong relationship with your team takes time and energy but it is so worth the investment. The more you talk openly together, the stronger the relationship becomes. In Suits, we see a good example of a trusted relationship. Mike and Harvey both seem to really trust each other and always have each other’s back, (even though we may not always agree with their ethics).

7. Create a culture of constant feedback

Giving constructive feedback is a cultural issue and the senior leadership share as much  responsibility as the manager if feedback is inadequate or absent. A strong way of  breaking the stigma around giving feedback is if more managers seize the moment to discuss a colleague’s performance (strengths and weaknesses), rather than putting it off. Remember, relaying feedback is like building a muscle - the more you work on it the stronger you’ll become. It is great to see how Harvey frequently critiques Mike’s performance in the heat of the moment but unfortunately, this kind of real time feedback is rare in most companies, where open discussions on performance are often reserved for formal reviews, every few months.

In summary, if more managers take an open, continuous and well-intended approach to feedback, a cultural shift will gradually take place across the entire organisation and feedback will become a healthy, daily practice instead of a bi-annual ritual.

* Research quoted from Feedback: the Powerful Paradox, a study of 2,500 respondents globally by by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman

(Author’s note: I’m only up to season four in Suits so am not aware of any developments in the relationship between Mike and Harvey beyond this. I’ll be watching more...)