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.
The second kind of Meeting After the Meeting is the informal huddle, when people debrief on what happened and say what they really thought but wouldn’t dare say in the meeting. Because, you know, that would be impolite. Or for fear…
When people are reluctant to speak up at meetings, it’s safe to say fear is lurking—if not rampant—in the workplace. Fear of reprisal, retribution. Fear of losing (authority, budget, position, title, favor, rank). Fear of being punished. Fear of being humiliated or belittled. When fear is present, people are unable to give their best, to take risks, to fully commit to the job at hand or to the company.
Whether its lost credibility of management or inability of your workforce to fully commit to their work, Meetings After the Meeting are detrimental to your work environment. They destroy the positive elements of your culture and undermine the good work and efforts of your team.
HYPERBOLE OR ASPIRATIONAL?
The “radical” part of radical transparency is probably hyperbole, because we should all aspire for transparency. What Dalio advocates is not all that radical. In fact, it’s common sense. A lot of it are lessons we learned in Kindergarten. Radical transparency, then, is not particularly radical. It’s just uncommon.
And when we imagine cut-throat environments, which is really the scary, toxic one? The one where people speak openly, where information is shared, where questions are asked and criticisms are (respectfully) levied? Or the environment where people mask their fear with politeness? Where leaders and managers can’t be trusted because they say one thing and do another? Where it’s impolite to confront people about real concerns but it’s OK to talk about them behind their backs?
Ray Dalia acknowledges it’s takes some time to get used to it but, in the end, people prefer the culture of radical transparency. They fear going back to a “regular” work environment:
And people worry about the other way. They don't want to go back to the other way. When you go back to a normal organization and you start to realize you don't know what the other people are really thinking, and they're all talking behind your back, and when you have all that office politics, and that becomes something that becomes distasteful to people. And [at Bridgewater], they also can be more themselves.
As leaders and managers, lets aspire to cultivate the conditions our people need to do their best work, to make their best decisions, and to work hard for the company. That means we need to work hard to ensure they feel supported, have all the information they need to make decisions, and are confident they can both speak freely and question freely.
While you can’t go from a toxic environment to one that’s transparent in a day, there are baby steps you can take. Small practices. Incremental change. Let’s say you notice a lot of meetings after the meeting. (Or maybe you initiate some of those meetings.) Start by saying, “Let’s talk about that when everyone is present.”
Andrea Applegate is a talent strategist who works with companies to implement effective people practices, transforming them into great places to work and ensuring they attract, retain and engage their best workforce.
You can listen to the Marketplace Morning Report podcast with Dalio here or read the full interview below.
Ray Dalio on how to stress test your ideas and make better decisions
Marketplace Morning Report 9/19/2017
Bridgewater Associates is the biggest private hedge fund in the world. Its balance sheet is imposing and so is its corporate culture. Over the years, founder Ray Dalio and team have worked out algorithms for feedback in which investment strategies and management decisions are openly questioned, pressure tested and revised. Employees rate each other in real-time, electronically, during meetings. People earn points for knowing what they’re talking about and are thus deemed more or less "believable." And then there’s “radical transparency,” in which most meetings are recorded and ready for playback.
The approach has naturally attracted attention over the years, and now, Dalio is going public with his methods in a new book, "Principles: Life and Work." He joined us to talk about his approach, why it can be uncomfortable and how it leads him to make better decisions.
David Brancaccio: The Fed does stress tests of financial institutions. You have a system to stress test your own views your own opinions?
Ray Dalio: The basic thing that I learned is that I want to increase my probability of being right, and the way the stress testing works is in three steps. 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.
Brancaccio: You're very big on surfacing conflicts. What is that like in practice? Like you notice someone is not meeting your gaze, there is something going on, you don't let that go on at all?
Dalio: The key is to be good with each other. If you're radically truthful with the other person and you believe that that other person is going to be truthful with you, while that may be difficult initially in that moment, it builds better relationships and it builds better quality work. And then if you're radically transparent with people so that they get to see things directly so that there's not spin, that really makes an idea meritocracy.
Brancaccio: Part of that radical transparency is you keep close track of meetings over at Bridgewater, right?
Dalio: What we do is we tape everything for everybody to see, pretty much.
Dalio: Well, some video, some audio and so on. The basic idea is that if everybody could see things directly, there can't be spin. So to bring it out and to have a discussion is great. We've been doing this for 42 years. It's the reason behind our success.
Brancaccio: But you have to have a thick skin, right?
Dalio: You get used to it. What happens is there's a process, and we find that about two-thirds of the people can get through, over about an 18-month period, this way of operating. And people worry about the other way. They don't want to go back to the other way. When you go back to a normal organization and you start to realize you don't know what the other people are really thinking, and they're all talking behind your back, and when you have all that office politics, and that becomes something that becomes distasteful to people. And [at Bridgewater], they also can be more themselves. In other words, they know what their strengths and weaknesses are. So we have a situation where a lot of people it's not for, and for those it's for, they can't get anything that's quite like it.
Brancaccio: You must wrestle with this. What if someone is not well suited for this system but might have other talents that could have been useful? In other words, it weeds out the people who can't handle your process who might have other talents. That's kind of a shame. They're not with you.
Dalio: Well, I think that's a simple question of "Is that talent that I'm going to lose because they're not there something that means that we can't really be truthful with each other? I don't mean that it's a 100 percent truthfulness or 100 percent transparency.
Brancaccio: Yeah, I know. Because if someone says to you, "Am I fat?" really, one knows not to answer that with radical transparency and truthfulness.
Dalio: If you were to ask me, "Am I fat?" I would answer you honestly, OK? But I would do it in a way that I would hope would be helpful, OK? But on the other hand, there are things that you don't have to be totally transparent about, there are subjects. We don't talk publicly about people's personal issues. There are times that there's conversations that are important, but there's a long way to go from a typical organization to a lot more transparency and a lot more truthfulness.
Brancaccio: And you're working on an app, some sort of digital assistant that would help a person navigate this?
Dalio: Yeah, we have an app, which we call a coach, and it operates like a coach. A coach would be almost like your GPS.
Brancaccio: And that's the internal one for Bridgewater. But might this ever be outward facing?
Dalio: What I'd like to do is pass all of this along, and you know, we'll do that, you know, in the not too distant future, in some way that I haven't quite figured out.