In his recent book Principles, renowned investor Ray Dalio describes his company culture as an “idea meritocracy” based on radical truth and radical transparency. He goes on to say that if you work at his company Bridgewater Associates, you have the privilege of speaking up and the obligation to speak up in the search of the best ideas. If you speak up, you must “own it” by establishing your believability either through hard-won experience or through a clear cause and effect rationale that supports your conclusion.
When we’ve shared this philosophy with senior executives of small to medium-sized businesses, many respond that this is really nothing new. They talk about their core values and how they’ve established a strong culture built on trust. But trust doesn’t guarantee that employees will speak up or share the truth as they see it. As Harvard development psychologist Bob Keegan noted, “Most employees are doing two jobs: their actual jobs and the job of managing others’ impressions of how they are doing their job.”
What gets in the way of employees sharing what they really think and the truth as they see it?
1. Dalio says it’s the fear of conflict or what he calls “thoughtful disagreement” that gets in the way. Many employees are afraid to offer a different point of view once someone very confident and assertive has shared an opinion, especially if that person is more senior and experienced. We are concerned that offering a different point of view will be viewed as a challenge or threat, and we worry the other person will become angry, or in extreme cases, retaliate against us. If you want to hear these other points of view, you must start with questions instead of statements. Don’t start with “here’s my opinion, what do you think?” Instead, define the problem or opportunity and ask, “how do you see this?”. Then be genuinely open-minded to hearing the answer even if you have a point of view already in mind. Being able to consider multiple points of view at one time is important for finding the best answer.
2. Many of our peer advisory group members acknowledge that too often they are looking for “good enough” as opposed to the ‘best answer”. This happens due to the everyday pressures of too much to do with too few resources. Time spent collaborating starts to feel like too much time. It’s so much easier to compromise on some seemingly unimportant details of a problem or solution so we can keep moving ahead. But when we hurry to an answer, we can miss the point that buy-in is the payoff for collaborating together. On our truly important priorities, we should encourage employees to struggle together for the best answer. Part of this process means hearing ideas from everyone, not just the loudest or most confident people. In this way, everyone is encouraged to speak up and own their ideas, and once a decision is reached, we can count on better alignment to execute it.
3. Most executives agree that “truth” comes from believable people, and in most companies, we’ve got different ideas about who is believable. To some executives, it’s the most experienced and successful person in the room, even if that person doesn’t necessarily have a lot of experience with the opportunity under consideration. Other executives see a believable point of view as a conclusion based on lots of hard facts with clear cause and effect rationale. This kind of believability isn’t necessarily linked to experience since truly innovative ideas haven’t been tried out yet. Dalio believes that both types of believability count and rates his employees on both attributes. So, ask yourself how you define believability. Are you willing to listen to solid rationale from less experienced people? Do you ask your people to “own” their ideas by providing thoughtful reasoning behind a recommendation so that you can clearly see how they reached their conclusion?
As a leader, do you truly encourage employees to speak up and own it? One ultimate test is whether they come to you for answers to problems or whether they come to you with answers and recommendations. Start asking them more questions to see other sides of a problem or opportunity, coach them to support their recommendations with solid rationale, and don’t shut down thoughtful disagreement. Encourage employees who embrace the privilege and obligation to participate in collaborating with you but let them know it doesn’t guarantee agreement. The process of sharing different perspectives is ultimately about reaching a decision that everyone can get behind.
How the Best Ideas Win: Radical Truth & Transparency
Want to learn more about Dalio's Principles? Join us for our special event, How the Best Ideas Win: Radical Truth & Transparency on May 23, 2019. To learn more and register, go to https://www.executiveforumsnova.com/events