Finding Equilibrium in Discomfort

Many years ago, I was interviewing for a new job at a young startup, and my uninspired last question to the CEO was: “How would you describe the culture here?”

He said: “We’re all really nice.”

I waited a day, then emailed the recruiter to excuse myself from the interview process.

It was, obviously, an answer that misunderstands what culture is and should be (if you disagree, stop immediately and read this instead.) But beyond that, I’m opposed to niceness as a goal, particularly one with any primacy (I would be okay with “…and if possible, do it nicely”). I think our human tendency to be nice to one another is actually a bug, not a feature, in a workplace setting. It’s cowardly – we’ll honk and troll behind the safety of our cars and our online avatars, but when face-to-face with someone we know we’ll be seeing tomorrow and the next day, we’d rather be nice than honest.

Whatever the intended culture of a company, niceness stands in the way of its actualization. Whatever the performance goals of a business, niceness stands in the way of their achievement.

I started thinking about this after a friend asked why a direct feedback norm isn’t more of an equilibrium strategy in organizations.

My answer is two-fold, and neither -fold is profound:

  1. Niceness is the default mode. In the insecure environment of a corporate bureaucracy, it smooths over conflict and stress. It creates stronger subgroups, reinforcing tribal identity by indicating alignment and sameness. Unfortunately, niceness is antithetical to giving real, hard feedback, which hurts and increases someone’s sense of insecurity.

  2. Resetting the default mode without breaking a lot of other stuff is hard and boring. It requires inventing and enforcing a new little society — with structure, processes, goals, measurement, consequences. Hardly why anyone starts a company.

I’ll do a quick summary of why I think a direct feedback norm should be the equilibrium strategy in organizations, go into a bit more depth into why I think it doesn’t happen, and then finish with what we can do about it.

Why Feedback?

Put simply, 1) feedback improves performance; 2) high performers bring about better results, ceteris paribus; and 3) companies want the best results.

At Bridgewater, we spent hours every week, if not every day, “getting in sync”, giving each other feedback, giving each other feedback on the feedback. Yes, it was uncomfortable, because the stories we tell about ourselves are sturdy and persistent. Yes, people cried sometimes, and yes, a lot of great people weren’t a great fit, and had to leave.

We fielded a decent number of questions from clients asking, understandably, how all the time and energy spent in this way was helping their returns. The answer was this: Investing (at Bridgewater, anyway) was not about predicting the future, but rather about understanding timeless and fundamental truths about how the world works, what current conditions are, and what is likely to change as a result. That is to say, our jobs were to figure out what was true, and what to do about it. Feedback and transparency are critical to that endeavor; without knowing what’s true about yourself, how can you know that you’re perceiving things correctly and taking the best course of action?

Bridgewater is an extreme example, and its culture is certainly not the right culture for every company (perhaps for any other company). But it’s a useful reference point, and the results are hard to argue with. And while that particular example is of a hedge fund investing large pools of capital in global asset classes, the lessons apply more broadly: Every company is a resource allocation machine – matching people and funds with strategies and tactics.

Without feedback, it’s unclear whether that resource allocation machine is working correctly, and it’s hard to get it to work better. Say I, as a cog in said machine, produce a little work pellet, and it never goes anywhere. Did the company strategy change? Was it not important in the first place? Did I misunderstand the assignment? Did I do a bad job of the right assignment? Did I do a great job of the right assignment, but a terrible job explaining it? What is true, and what do I do about it? I can’t know, and I can’t do a better job next time. All these small confusions compound in a complex system.

And when crisis invariably hits, and no one has a real understanding of why things are happening, people start scapegoating and a public sacrifice is required in order for everyone to move on and rebuild. Yet nothing has changed, and the same mistakes will be made by the same people (except the scapegoat, long may he/she rest), in a future that looks a lot like the past.

Why Doesn’t It Happen?

Here’s the vicious cycle companies typically find themselves stuck in, as I see it.

  1. A real meritocracy is hard to establish.

  2. In the absence of an established meritocracy, performance and results are subjective, making it more likely that feedback gets construed as political misalignment, and is given rarely.

  3. In the absence of consistent feedback, any single piece of critical feedback is over-analyzed and internalized, and frays the relationship between receiver and giver.

  4. Without feedback and trust, it is impossible to establish a real meritocracy.

In a meritocratic, feedback-driven world: You know who’s credible on specific things, because they’ve demonstrated their strengths and weaknesses over time, peers and managers have given them feedback, and that feedback has been triangulated and corroborated. You know who has great ideas, who’s best at turning ideas into actions, who’s best at executing, who’s best at overseeing projects, who’s best at evangelizing the results – because you’ve set, and can measure, specific OKRs and KPIs, and via a system of consistent and robust feedback understand your whole team’s spikes and areas of mediocrity.

More commonly, though, whoever has the most political power in an organization gets his or her ideas implemented. Teams are assembled from in-groups, not on purpose but because we trust and think more highly of people who are pleasant to spend time with. Success is fully attributed upward when things go well, failures are down to bad luck. In a success case, many things could’ve been done better, but everyone pats each other on the backs and tries to share in the glory; any critical feedback to a person in this environment is perceived as trying to take some credit away from them, as edging them out of getting a bite of the fresh carcass, and the person stops trusting you to have their back and starts looking around for other people to gripe about you with. And in a failure case, any feedback is perceived as you trying to pin some blame on the person, rather than doing the polite thing and blaming it on luck.

In this kind of system, getting ahead becomes about standing close to power, rather than about great ideas and execution. Feedback is perverted into a way of performing loyalty to a specific tribe, no true meritocracy exists: Stasis.

What Should We Do About It?

To be honest, I don’t truly know how to break out of the vicious cycle.

But I have a hypothesis about the two fundamental things that made Bridgewater work, that potentially could be implemented elsewhere:

  1. Turn feedback into your tribal identity; and

  2. Enforce specific norms to ensure people treat one another respectfully.

If you make feedback the primary signifier of your tribal identity, then in order to fit in, everyone has to do it. You’ve perverted the normal role of feedback, as described in the last section.

Reward people for giving good, hard feedback that helps people improve, give them feedback that they’re great at giving feedback.

The first thing most people ask me when they hear I worked at Bridgewater was, “OMG, was it crazy?” Because the one thing that they’ve heard is that it’s a weird cult with “radical transparency and feedback”. That’s what defined us.

Then the things you need for this to work and not turn your org into a hateful, backstabbing morass: trust and respect. At Bridgewater, people were harsh, but they were never cruel. (As an example of cruelty masquerading as honesty and feedback, I read this Away story with horror).

Norms that I think are necessary to foster trust and respect:

  • Specificity. There’s no better way to exacerbate a fight with a significant other than to start a sentence with “You always do [x].” Similarly, feedback works better when it’s regarding a specific event.

  • No anonymity or talking about people behind their back. At Bridgewater, anyone who talked about a person not in the room was labeled a “slimy weasel.” An email that mentioned someone not CC’d would be immediately forwarded to them. I look at things like Amazon’s Anytime Feedback, which is anonymous, and am not surprised when I hear about an environment of paranoia and stress there; anonymous feedback feels like an attack, or a tattle.

  • No sugarcoating. This is the anti-niceness clause. I think it shows that you respect your peers enough to be straightforward and trust them enough to take it the right way.

All of these things don’t feel good all the time; most of them don’t feel good most of the time, at least in the moment. But I really did come to experience feedback as a gift when it comes from someone who cares about me and wants to make me better in the pursuit of working together toward a common goal.

I’m still learning and collecting data on what other companies are like. I think if you do these things, then feedback happens, a meritocracy grows, and your virtuous cycle is in motion. But always happy to chat more or hear different perspectives. Hit me up!