Most organisations shy away from conflict, are based on hierarchy where much of key information is shared only across the very top and privileged, and hire based on flawed interview metrics and methods.
Yet, Ray Dalio challenges us in Principles (almost last blog on this, promise!) to consider another alternative that could just change your world, the company or idea that you lead, and result in long-lasting relationships that you can cherish.
The idea of radical transparency is what has driven and drives Bridgewater Associates to be the best hedge management fund in the world.
In this blog, I’ll have a more detailed look at the building blocks of what radical transparency can mean, why it should matter, and how to start thinking and behaving along these lines.
Radical transparency is about finding the truth
Radical transparency rests on idea meritocracy, which is
“a system that brings together the smartest, independent thinkers and has them productively disagree to come up with the best possible collective thinking and resolve their disagreements in a believability-weighted way- will outperform any other decision-making system” (p. 308)
It is about being clear about different perspectives and assumptions that are associated with particular ideas and letting the ideas, not the people, to battle so that the best and highest quality idea wins.
But more than that, it is about finding the truth rather than bolstering your ego.
Ego driven or ego-based collaboration is not fruitful as it locks in people into positions and also introduces the notion of personal shame and humiliation.
In meetings and especially with disagreements, most of us step into the “lower level you”, which is our flight-or-fight mode where we have to fight for our opinions and let our emotions take over if our idea or assumption is being questioned.
This means that we will spend most of the time in a meeting defending our position and ourselves and are very unlikely able to see the big picture and the validity of other perspectives and ideas.
Yet, Ray asks us to trust the process and take on the responsibility of voicing why we think what we think: “In an idea meritocracy, openness is a responsibility; you do not only have the privilege to speak up and “fight for right” but are obliged to do so” (p. 329).
It is also acknowledging that we all make mistakes, and that we don’t always understand the reality and the associated assumptions that are hidden in the statements that we make.
Transparency of the decision making
Being also transparent about the decision-making process and current outcomes helps as a whole to get everyone in sync because information is not being hidden and everyone can have the same starting point.
Such transparency has the capacity to increase feelings of inclusivity and puts everyone literally in the same boat:
“giving most everyone the ability to see almost everything. To give people anything less than total transparency would make them vulnerable to others spin and deny them the ability to figure out things for themselves” (p. 308).
This relates to such factors as performance transparency as noted in the McKinsey podcast on organisational health: being transparent about how the organisation is hitting its goals (or not) helps everyone to see what the current status is, identify where they sit on those scales, and people are naturally interested in how they can perform like those departments on the top.
Performance transparency is in fact “a management behavior that allows us to get better by learning what the other person is doing, and just knowing where to aspire to”.
If information is not shared only with the privileged but is easily understandable and accessible to the broader organisation, leaders are likely to find that staff across the organisation feel more ownership and part of the organisation.
For instance, at Bridgewater the majority of meetings are recorded and shared so that any employee can watch and/or read the transcript of those meetings.
They also have different scoring and weighting systems on people’s believability that is “a function of their capabilities and their willingness to say what they think” (p. 387); these believability scores and metrics build a fundamental part of who often has the most influence in a decision when there is a major disagreement.
Relationships as testing grounds for transparency
But radical transparency is not just a management principle for hedge funds and highly successful organisations. It applies as much to relationships as well, how we choose to connect with others and the kinds of atmosphere we want to create around us.
It’s not easy as we all watch what we say, what we share, and how we might come across, and of course need to keep reading people and situations to the best of our ability.
Radical transparency therefore is not about quitting emotional intelligence and just blurting out things without consideration how this might make them feel or react.
In fact, it is the very opposite: it is our best shelf coming to the table in a way that respects our values and aspirations while making sure we show the same respect to others and their ideas.
Radical transparency is confronting as it demands also vulnerability, of being ready to be questioned, and being ready to accept that you can be wrong and likely are wrong a number of times.
A leader who chooses to lead through this approach has to have a high level of self awareness and reflection.
Working with such a leader is challenging but at the same time it is an invitation for growth.
But within all of this, there is a certain level of kindness involved; of caring for the other people and making sure that the ideas that are generated are the best ones so that they can keep the company and the people afloat.
This is particularly important given the saying “people don’t leave a job, they leave a manager”.
Operating under transparency means that we are interested in creating long-lasting relationships with the people we lead, and do the best we can in making sure they feel as part of what we are aiming to achieve.
Being open is better place to foster innovation
While radical transparency is not for everyone, we can all make even if only minor steps towards being more open about our ideas, where they originated from, and what assumptions they are based on.
This kind of talk will enable a much more stronger stance and possibility of supporting true innovation as people are not misunderstanding each other and can actually build on each other’s ideas.
Yet, independent thinking, open debate, and open disagreement requires us to be willing to turn inwards more than outwards and assess who we are, where our weaknesses lie, and how we can push forward:
“the ability to objectively self-assess, including one’s own weaknesses, is the most influential factor in whether a person succeeds, and that a healthy organisation is one in which people compete not so much against each other as against the ways in which their lower level selves get in the way” (p. 396).
An organisation that succeeds in creating transparency across and enables the staff to feel that they are part of something that they can understand and know are much more likely to succeed.
For the climate change adaptation community, this means that we too need to be much more open about the assumptions that we have developed and made about what “effective” or “successful” adaptation is, can and should look like.
And when we meet, we should also aim for this kind of idea meritocracy where we focus much more on an idea, its origins, associated assumptions, and different perspectives rather than on the person proposing it.
I do believe that radical transparency has a much more urgent place in our world more than ever given that we need to recognise where we are at regarding climate change (e.g. performance transparency on emissions), what changes are already taking place, and be realistic of the number of strategies and investments that are already needed to address those.
But more than that, my hope is that we can all have more frank and radically transparent conversations about how to move forward as a global community.