I heard on the Marketplace Morning Report recently an interview with Ray Dalio, founder of investment firm, Bridgewater Associates, and author of the new book, Principles: Life and Work. A central theme of the interview was Bridgewater’s culture of “radical transparency” as cultivated by Mr. Dalio.
I don’t know about you, but I probably wouldn’t survive in a profession like investment banking, with its reputed cut-throat culture. I’m not well-suited for an environment like that. I’d just be deer-in-headlights the whole time. Nonetheless, I found the interview with Dalio fascinating. There are several principles and practices we can take away from Dalio’s version of radical transparency to make our own work environment the best place it can be and to ensure we are attracting, retaining and engaging our best workforce.
photo credit: Business Insider
Before we get to that, let's define the attributes of radical transparency. I believe a radically transparent workplace is based on two modes of conduct of its people: openness and feedback; and is dependent on two characteristics of its people: courage and confidence. And like Dalio did, we must cultivate these attributes in both our environment and our people.
In a transparent environment, we hold people accountable—we must—and we address meaningful issues, no matter how unpleasant, in a constructive, respectful and fact-based manner. Our colleagues (subordinates and superiors) can depend on us to do what we say and say what we mean. All the time. When we operate in a transparent environment, we are open to sharing data and information allowing for wise and effective decision-making. We welcome questions and we are open to receiving criticism; and we can be depended upon, when necessary, to ask questions and deliver criticism—again, in a constructive, respectful and fact-based manner.
Describing his version of radical transparency, Dalio says:
The first, you have to put your honest thoughts on the table. Can everybody do that? Second, you have to know the art of thoughtful disagreement. In other words, how do you listen, how do you take in, how do you exchange thoughts, so that collectively you can get to a better place than you had individually? And then third, if you have disagreements, then you have to have processes for getting around it.
SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE NOT-SO-TRANSPARENT?
If radically transparent is one way, what is its opposite? And is it necessarily bad? If we cringe at the notion of questioning and criticizing, perhaps we’d prefer to be in a politer environment. The problem with “polite” is that, even though the questions are not said out loud or the criticisms are not voiced in the open, they are still there. Lurking. Festering. Undermining the well-intentioned actions of bosses and employees.
I suspect we’ve all experienced work environments that were not-so-transparent, that lacked the qualities and characteristics defined earlier. Maybe it’s being in a meeting when the CEO presents the Next Big Idea or the New Business Plan and thinking, “Oh, my, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Somebody needs to say something. Someone needs to speak up.” But no one ever does. You know, because that would be impolite. Or for fear…
Or maybe it’s overhearing people talk disparagingly of a colleague and realizing, “Yikes, do they talk about me this way, too?” followed by the sinking feeling that, yes, they probably do. Because that’s what we do around here. We’re polite to your face but we’ll talk about you behind your back. And then realizing we can’t really trust or confide in anybody. So, we’re always on guard. And we protect ourselves. You know, for fear…
WHERE DOES THE MEETING AFTER THE MEETING FIT IN?
There are two kinds of Meetings After the Meeting. The first is where real discussions take place and real decisions are made. This is because the bosses can’t trust discussing or deciding with everyone in the room. While there are legitimate circumstances when discussion/decision meetings need to take place behind closed doors, its ill-advised to precede these closed-door meetings with ones where you go through the motions of being transparent and pretend to engage people in decision-making. The only thing that’s transparent in this scenario is the charade. This is one of the quickest ways to lose credibility with your people.