Ray Dalio’s book Principles was a #1 New York Times bestseller and the #1 Amazon business book of the year in 2017. In it he espouses “radical transparency,” which is the idea that everyone should be able to see and criticize everything in the business, including the boss and his or her ideas.
Dalio’s company, Bridgewater, is the world’s most successful hedge fund. They have been practicing and refining radical transparency practices for decades. The book presents a persuasive argument for such transparency.
There is a dark side, however. Bridgewater has a reputation as an extremely stressful and political work environment. By design, it loses more than a third of its new hires within their first year. One former associate eloquently described the company as “a cauldron of fear and intimidation.”
Such an environment is obviously not for everyone. This is mostly because of how people react to criticism. We shut down. That can be bad for success in both business and our personal lives
Whether we are trying to design a more delightful car interior, make the best investment decision, or improve ourselves, knowing what people really think and feel can be invaluable. Honest feedback about a product, a decision, or a person, is the best source for action and improvement. Getting that kind of transparency is difficult because people fear the repercussions of speaking their mind. To give such feedback, they need to feel safe that it won’t cause distress.
Why People Hesitate to Offer Honest Criticism
People have good reason to fear offering honest feedback. We know from modern science and fMRI images that criticism lights up the brain in the same way that being punched in the stomach does.
Amy Edmonson has done some pioneering research into our fear of giving feedback and inability to take criticism, which can be disastrous in certain circumstances. For example, Edmonson points to nurses who don’t tell doctors that drug doses are out of line, and executives who don’t criticize decisions they know won’t pan out. Why don’t they speak up? Because they fear the repercussions, especially of a boss.
Ideally, we want to gain all the learning and insights from honest feedback without the baggage of hurting others and undermining working relationships. We want feedback without fear. Edmonson claims that when people feel safe, they will be honest and perform at their best.
Google’s internal research into what distinguishes their highest-performing teams bears this idea out. In 2014, a team of analysts within their People Operations group tried to find correlations between the performance of 180 teams and the academic studies of how teams work. Such practices include mixing introverts with extroverts, strong leadership vs. humble leadership, gathering the brightest minds, and having a clear process and structure. The researchers could find no correlation between any of these factors. It wasn’t until they stumbled across Edmonson’s concept of psychological safety that they found the connection.
Can business leaders combine these two seemingly contradictory practices of radical transparency and psychological safety? Both leverage honest opinions to optimize analysis and make more intelligent decisions. But they come at it from completely different mindsets.
In the Bridgewater model, radical criticism is forced and rewarded. Standardized meetings and supporting technologies are structured to challenge current thinking. People’s careers advance more quickly when they exhibit public criticism. In the Google model, the highest performing teams cultivate safe and playful environments where members feel free to contribute ideas and have them rigorously challenged.
How to Encourage Safe Transparency
We can ask for feedback in ways that capture the value of transparency in a psychologically safe way. I call this “safe transparency.” Below are some ideas for gathering honest feedback that makes people feel safe to offer honest insights.
1. Request feedback. Whereas giving unsolicited advice is typically unwelcomed and can hurt relationships, requesting feedback signals your trust in others and your vulnerability. It becomes an act of friendship to respond and it is a refreshing opening that allows a candid exchange that builds trust and psychological safety.
2. Build a team of advisors. It is a common marketing practice to select a panel of customers who agree to give feedback on emerging product ideas. Do the same for yourself and ask a few colleagues you trust if they would be willing to provide you with suggestions when asked. They will be flattered!
3. Be specific. It is easier for others to respond to requests about specific events, tasks or skills than to provide general guidance on “you” and how “you” might improve. For example:
Events: A meeting you ran; an interaction you had; a presentation you gave
Tasks: A project or program you are leading; a document you wrote; one of your key objectives
Skills: Meeting facilitation; presenting; writing
4. Be Agile. The agile methodology of quick iterations, collaboration and feedback across all stakeholders has become the new gold standard for software development. If you can be consistent with your feedback requests—and build them into recurring events—it will become a normal part of your own continuous improvement.
5. Listen with an open mind. When someone does show the courage of sharing difficult but candid perceptions, listen with curiosity—even when it triggers your defensive threat response!—and thank them sincerely for their feedback.
6. Use the right words. If you are not used to it, finding the right words can feel difficult. Feedback is nearly always going to be about an event, a task or a skill. Here’s a place to start:
I am hoping you will provide me with some helpful feedback on [Enter the specific event or task or skill]. Can you tell me what you think I did well, and share any ideas for how I could be even more effective?
Thank you very much!
7. Make it a habit. Leading organizations have started to incorporate and require requests for honest feedback into their employee development and project management practices. If you work at PWC, you are expected to ask for feedback monthly. At Deloitte the expectation is every other week. It’s a simple and elegant solution. Try it with your own group, and inspire a feedback revolution.
Feedback is an invaluable source of insight and learning. It’s what makes your phone easy to use and your car fun to drive. It can also help you improve and succeed as a leader. But colleagues, customers and friends are cautious about telling you what they really think for fear of offending. If you want to unlock their thinking, take the steps to create Safe Transparency.
Chris Morgan is founding principal of Morgan Alexander, a consulting firm that coaches senior management teams to lead winning organizations. He has more than 20 years of experience, having started with The Alexander Corporation in 1988, a firm rated by the Economist magazine as the UK market leader. Morgan’s clients are primarily C-level executives with Fortune 500 companies, and high tech startups in the San Francisco Bay Area.