Editing with Empathy to Create Stronger Investigative Teams

March 2, 2022

By Julia Wilton, Senior Associate and George Shamiyeh, Director, Forward Risk and Intelligence

Under the Hood: A Discussion Series for Investigative Professionals

Growing and developing your skills as an investigator starts with receiving feedback from peers and learning from that feedback. But what if you’re not receiving the guidance you need to take the next step?

As our team has laid out in previous insights, investigative researchers constantly face the struggles of dealing with tight deadlines, high expectations, and the fear of making mistakes in their work. When you add in failures in top-down communication and guidance, these factors increase the likelihood that investigators will lose motivation, or worse, become burned out.

Having a formalized process to review the work of your investigators is crucial, but failing to leverage it in a way that maximizes their potential and enhances company culture can have significant consequences in the short and long term. Here, we highlight some of the ways that reviewers can effectively provide feedback to team members.

How Reviews Affect Client Deliverables

An investigations firm is only as good as the quality of the work that it provides to its clients. High quality service, in turn, is the culmination of thorough research and analysis that has stood the test of rigorous scrutiny and skepticism.

Fundamental to ensuring that a client receives exceptional investigative services is the existence of a review process that puts ego aside and prioritizes attention to detail, comprehensiveness, thoughtfulness, and factual accuracy. Critically, any gap or failure in this process could result in flaws that go undetected. Consequently, this may result in the loss of substantial business and irreparable reputational harm. As such, it’s necessary for any investigative team that aims to impress clients and become a market leader to devote sufficient time and resources to reviewing deliverables holistically.

Reviewers should effectively operate as an investigations company’s “red team,” serving as the final line of defense in independently evaluating whether a report is up to snuff. To do so effectively, reviewers often find themselves analyzing information from a client’s perspective, and they must consistently strive to poke holes in research while maintaining an unbiased approach.

This is no passive undertaking, but rather, a crucial phase that requires deliberate, but empathetic, review and guidance.

Cultivating, Teaching, and Empathizing Investigators

Building trust and communication often starts with the investigative review process. As an editor, it is essential to come to the realization that you are working with a peer or colleague. With that in mind, giving feedback requires empathy, and providing positive and constructive guidance – as you would have it received – is perhaps the most important step in the review process.

Approaching each investigative review with respect and an open line of communication will more often than not preclude any long-term performance issues. To that end, editing needs to be undertaken in a way that teaches researchers the “do’s and don’ts” of investigative research and report-writing.

Simultaneously, the editing process should ideally cultivate and support investigators in growing and honing their skills.

Critical feedback is necessary to enable researchers to learn best practices for analyzing information and putting pen to paper, but it should be provided in a constructive and sensitive manner. Are researchers approaching each case with an investigative mindset – one that aims to leave no stone unturned? Are they relying on the most authoritative sources, asking all the relevant questions, and ensuring that there are no other available avenues of research? Are they directly addressing your clients’ concerns?

These are some of the questions that should be top of mind while reviewing an investigative report, but the way in which they are conveyed to a researcher during the editing process is crucial.

If editors rely on harsh, judgmental, or disparaging feedback – which on their own can cultivate an uneven power dynamic driven by fear – it can ultimately affect the entire culture of a firm for the worse. Instead, editors should approach the review process as a learning experience in its own right, and they should aim to impart knowledge and experience while keeping an open mind.

Instead of telling a colleague that something is plain wrong (receiving a late-night edit that reads, “Pls fix, thx,” is unfortunately too common in our line of work), explain to them why a change is needed in a certain case, even if the explanation requires a bit of extra time and effort.

An essential goal of the review process is to develop your investigators. Providing positive feedback and reinforcement for good investigative work – and being specific about what exactly was done well – can have a big impact and ensure that your researchers don’t feel burned out, particularly in the early stages of their careers in this field. Highlighting what you like about your investigator’s research and writing reiterates what you hope to see more of in forthcoming projects.

More importantly, as your investigators progress, this approach will only create more efficiencies for your firm in the long run, and it will pay dividends by boosting employee morale and improving overall workplace culture.

Everyone Should Be An Editor – And Everyone Needs to be Edited!

While seasoned investigators often require fewer edits or changes to their original work, it is imperative that teams continue to thoroughly review and critique the work of all researchers – regardless of experience in the field. Veteran investigators may require less of a ‘teaching’ approach to edits, but reviewers should remain scrupulous and focused on the content of the research at hand.

On the other hand, while everyone needs edits, it is pivotal that every researcher also becomes an effective editor in their own right, preferably early on in their investigative careers. Unsurprisingly, inexperienced investigators become better researchers by undertaking edits for a more seasoned colleague. Encouraging your emergent investigators to take up reviews can prove to be truly informative. Becoming an editor allows those early on in their careers to visualize and absorb the methods and approaches of more experienced researchers, enabling them to develop their own conclusions for self-improvement.

Crucially, it allows researchers to internalize what to do and not to do, and how to do it, and to apply lessons learned to their own investigative work.

This post is the fifth in a series about workplace challenges facing investigative professionals and other white-collar researchers, focusing on practical advice and lessons learned from our own experiences. While tailored toward the investigative and intelligence industry, we hope that these articles are also valuable for others in the professional services sector, while also providing a behind-the-scenes look at Forward Risk’s values and operating practices.

If you have any questions or comments, or would like to suggest a topic for further discussion, please email our Partner Dan Greenberg – dan [at] forwardrisk.com.

Julia Wilton is a Senior Associate and George Shamiyeh is Director at Forward Risk and Intelligence Inc., a corporate investigations firm with offices in Washington, DC and New York. More information can be found at www.forwardrisk.com.