I was chatting with Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates last Tuesday about the thin line between constructive and destructive confrontation in the workplace. “Confrontation has to be constructive,” the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund told me. "You need to get everything out on the table.” Constructive confrontation is one of the Ten Cultural Elements of Collaboration that I introduced in The Culture of Collaboration book. It’s also an aspect of Bridgewater’s controversial culture.
Ray had just finished an on-stage interview with Charles Duhigg on Bridgewater’s culture at the New York Times New Work Summit in Half Moon Bay, California. Collaboration was a central theme of the conference that brought together a few hundred chief executives, human resources leaders and others to share experiences, insights and challenges involving organizational culture.
“I want an idea meritocracy. I want independent thinkers who are going to disagree,” Ray told the audience. One way that Bridgewater accomplishes this objective is by capturing ninety-nine percent of meetings on video and making the archived video available to each of its roughly 1400 people at any time. The one percent of meetings not recorded involves personnel issues and proprietary trades.
“The most important thing I want is meaningful work and meaningful relationships, and we get there through radical truth.” Ray’s point is that radical truth and transparency build trust and curb hidden agendas and spin. “There’s no talking behind people’s backs,” according to Ray. “Bad things happen in the dark.” Bridgewater’s meritocracy, he explains, produces evidence which decreases bias and increases fact-based decisions.
Information democracy in which organizations widely share data and information is a key principle of collaborative companies. Trust and constructive confrontation are critical to collaboration. Hidden agendas and spin short circuit collaboration. So it would seem that Bridgewater’s brand of radical transparency would enhance collaboration. Right? Well, that depends.
There’s conflicting information regarding whether all confrontation is thoughtful and constructive at Bridgewater. That’s why I engaged Ray about the thin line between constructive and destructive confrontation and the need to keep disagreements thoughtful. Bridgewater makes performance reviews public and encourages team members to examine themselves before accepting areas for improvement, according to an April, 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review.
Performance reviews, whether public or private, can exhaust an organization and compromise value. Meetings, whether captured on video or not, waste time and energy. A more effective alternative to meetings, which I outline in my book The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration, is collaborative group sessions in which people co-create something of value.
Self-actualization seems to play a role in Bridgewater’s culture. Rather than check one’s emotions at the office door, team members are encouraged to recognize their emotional “triggers” and to “recognize the challenge between the logical and emotional self” in Ray’s words. Then people can more easily set aside emotional triggers and baggage.
I was curious how Bridgewater's culture resonated with the conference crowd, so I continued the discussion over lunch. Capturing almost all meetings on video for everybody to see is one cultural attribute that fell flat. “That would never work in our organization,” one participant at my table insisted. She explained that her company values privacy and offers private drop-in spaces for on-the-fly interactions. Other attendees expressed similar views.
The down side of capturing almost all meeting video is that people may put on game faces whenever they’re in a “live” meeting room and that formality takes hold. In contrast, informality enhances collaboration which is why so many businesses have been hatched while doodling on napkins in bars and cafes. Floor proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate were once far less formal before these bodies allowed television cameras. Now there’s greater transparency but less collaboration across party lines.
Sometimes collaborators create greater value for the organization during small, private collaborative sessions either through technology or in the same room. Making video capture of these sessions widely available but optional may create the greatest value for collaborative organizations.
Clearly, radical transparency works for Bridgewater. Could the firm’s industry play a role? “You have to be an independent thinker in markets because consensus is built into price,” explains Ray. Then again, challenging the status quo creates value in many industries.
For organizations adopting collaborative structures and cultures, there’s much to learn from Bridgewater. But what works for one company in a particular industry may fall short for another company in a different business. Trying to implement a carbon copy structure and culture would undoubtedly be a mistake.