Radical Candor at Law Firms - Building High Performing Teams

Radical Candor at Law Firms - Building High Performing Teams

Years ago, we published a blog post on The Importance of Honesty in the Workplace.  It's still one of our most read pieces of content.  This post explores a concept called “Radical Candor” created by Kim Scott, a former executive at Google and Apple, and provides specific tips for lawyers to practice Radical Candor at law firms.

Culture is Scalable, Relationships are not

Before getting to the essence of Radical Candor, it is important to recognize that the number of quality relationships a boss can maintain is limited. While that number depends on a variety of factors, six direct reports plus or minus two seems to be a commonly accepted number. The selection and quality of these relationships is often the driving factor for professional success. Radical Candor is about relationship quality.

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Several years ago, I was lucky to spend a day listening to Gary Keller of Keller Williams explain the steps he took to create the largest real estate company in the world. He drew on a slide two companies, each with a boss and five direct reports — one company had 120,000 agents, the other had 6 people total. As Keller explained it, the difference was in the selection of the five direct reports. Put simply, Keller was able to scale a business and culture through his careful selection of the leaders on his team, who in turn developed high performing teams below them, and so on.

While simple, this is a critically important concept as a business grows beyond the scope of its founder’s ability to maintain a relationship with every employee.

Elements of Radical Candor

Kim Scott introduced the concept of Radical Candor through presentations and her book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.  She argues that greater candor makes better bosses.  The elements of her system are (1) providing guidance (2) to build high performing teams (3) that get results. As to the guidance element, Scott defines two fundamental dimensions of radical candor — “challenging directly” and “caring personally.”  Using those dimensions, boss/employee engagements can be divided into four quadrants based on the level of each dimension involved:

  1. Low Challenging Directly/Low Caring Personally — Described as “manipulative insincerity,” this is where the boss doesn’t address the problem either because they don’t have time or they wish to be liked more than being an effective boss.

  2. Low Challenging Directly/High Caring Personally — This type of behavior can be described as “ruinous empathy,” where the boss cares too much to provide needed feedback.

  3. High Challenging Directly/Low Caring Personally — This is obnoxious aggression where the boss employs no filter in providing feedback.

  4. High Challenging Directly/High Caring Personally — This is Radical Candor and it is hard. Using this approach, the boss communicates directly with care to help a team member improve. That means not ignoring poor performance and choosing to be liked over results. This is where real improvement occurs, and is well worth the effort.

See our post Radical Candor -- Honesty at the Office, which explains these dimensions in more detail.

Tips for Lawyers to Implement Radical Candor

Here are some thoughts, based on over 20 years of being a lawyer, on how to best implement Radical Candor in a law firm environment:

  • Do not wait until employee reviews to provide guidance. Employees, particularly millennials, want performance feedback. Waiting months to give an employee feedback is not an effective way to develop performance or a high performing team.

  • Avoiding tough conversations usually does not pay. Scott describes this behavior as either “ruinous empathy” (high caring) or “manipulative insincerity” (low caring). Ironically, she believes that “obnoxious aggression” is more likely to get results than the two avoiding approaches. Best to handle tough conversations quickly and move on.

  • Look for opportunities to praise. People generally spend more time avoiding pain than seeking positives, which means we tend to remember what went wrong more than what went right. Radical Candor includes praising employees for jobs well done. Look for those opportunities to make deposits in your teams emotional bank accounts.

  • Does your law firm recognize the value of high performing teams? I’ve worked in companies where individual performance is more valued than team work. Trying to build a high performing team in this environment can be difficult, possibly counterproductive. But even in an individual performance environment no one rarely succeeds alone.

Final Thoughts on Radical Candor at Law Firms

Building high performing teams that get results is hard. The key to achieving this according to Scott is a boss’s willingness to provide guidance that challenges directly while demonstrating personal care. This is tough in any environment. Typical law firm cultures are not always open to direct feedback, and implementing this management style is likely to ruffle feathers initially. But the rewards of increased team performance is worth it.

If you liked this subject, you may be interested in our other law culture related posts, What Makes an Ideal Work Environment and Advantages of a Values Based Business.

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In addition to Thriving Attorney, Darin M. Klemchuk is founder of Klemchuk LLP, a litigation, intellectual property, and transactional law firm located in Dallas, Texas.  He also co-founded Project K, a charity devoted to changing the world one random act of kindness at a time.  Click to read more about Darin Klemchuk's practice as an intellectual property lawyer.

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