Part of any leadership role is communicating with your teams: providing them with guidance, sharing relevant information, and giving useful feedback to individual team members. Good leaders also communicate with their partners, peers, and managers on a regular basis.
Effective communication is not unidirectional. The people you work with should be regularly sharing valuable information with you. Ideally, your entire organization should foster open communications in a safe and useful fashion.
The thinking around how organizations communicate has taken a twist in recent years with the rising popularity of “radical communication,” also called radical candor, radical transparency, or radical honesty. In each of these cases, radical is intended to indicate the pervasive use of direct, consistent, honest, and potentially painful communication between everyone, all the time.
While the idea that open and honest communication leads to better ideas, closer alignment, and greater success is not new, it has gained momentum, particularly as a number of distinguished champions have published well-received business books that have radical communication as a key concept. These three have found their way to my bookshelves in recent years:
For many years, Patty McCord was the chief talent officer, Netflix, as the company rose to tremendous size and established a unique Silicon Valley workplace culture. Her book focuses on some of the approaches she brought to Netflix, including that of radical honesty: One of the pillars of the Netflix culture was that if people had a problem with an employee or with how a colleague in their own department or somewhere else in the company was doing something, they were expected to talk about it openly with that person, ideally face to face.
Principles, Ray Dalio
Ray Dalio made his billions as co–chief investment officer at the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. His book is much more than a justification of his interpretation of radical transparency. It is part autobiography, part business education, and part manifesto. The third section of the book, Work Principles, consists of a series of numbered principles and his thoughts on their relevance to a variety of workplace challenges. One of his keys, which he believes underlies a great deal of his company’s success, is Principle 1.4: Be radically transparent.
In his theory of radical communication, not only do individuals share openly and honestly, but the company itself also shares information, plans, and data that would elsewhere be considered private or proprietary.
Kim Scott successfully managed people at Google and Apple as she developed her theories around radical candor. The first half of her book recounts the journey that led her to her ideas. The second part, and now her consulting practice, focuses on tools and techniques that can be used to build better, more candid relationships in the workplace. Despite the examples of uncomfortable confrontations she shares, the tone of the book and most of her suggestions is reasonably conventional rather than radical.
The emphasis of each book is a little different, but the key communication concept in each centers around what might be considered an extreme level of honesty within companies. Given the success of the authors and their organizations, the creed has gained many converts, particularly in Silicon Valley.
I can recommend these books for those of you who are, like me, always searching for ways to improve yourself and your company. But if radical levels of honesty, transparency, and candor were invariably valuable and trivial to implement, everyone (and all companies) would already be using them. The challenges and risks are significant, particularly because openness and exposure can easily be abused, both inadvertently and maliciously.
An old proverb states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Radical communication concepts should be considered by anyone interested in improving their organization, but the concepts should not be blindly adopted without careful consideration of the risks and a well-thought-out plan. Good intentions alone are unlikely to work, and are more likely to backfire.
For one thing, not everyone is a great communicator. As Dalio himself mentions a few times in the book, understand the people are wired very differently. Folks have different communication skill levels, backgrounds, and mother tongues. It is not always reasonable to expect that, without significant coaching and practice, the people in your organization will be able to effectively communicate in a (radically) more open and straightforward manner than they currently do.
On the other hand, some folks are traditionally great communicators, but not necessarily in the intended honest, candid, or transparent sense. They may thrive on conflict, or love to persuade others. McCord mentions this problem: One of the great dangers in business is people who are great at winning an argument due to their powers of persuasion rather than the merits of their case.
One key area of potential challenge relates to imbalances of power. In many organizations, those with the most power may feel free to express their opinions, but are not as willing to listen to or accept thoughts and opinions of their “underlings.” If they are comfortable expressing their opinions, they may already believe that their organization is radically transparent. The reality of this dynamic needs to be addressed delicately yet directly for there to be any chance for true honesty, candor, and transparency to thrive.
While power imbalances often exist because of titles and reporting structures, they can also occur due to perceived expertise and contribution, as touched on in my post Brilliant Jerks.
More troubling yet, bad actors can game the system. When one party opens up, they expose themselves to attacks and manipulation by those with something to gain. These attacks can be masked as “hard truths” and “honest opinions.” With just a small amount of digging, I was able to find feedback on Bridgewater, Ray Dalio’s company, from folks who felt that this was actively occurring even in their radically transparent organization:
- All you (people at Bridgewater) do is critique each other on the principles and attributes that are a strong part of the culture.
- Some people do not understand the principles and use them to manipulate people.
- Environment (is) toxic if you’re not wired just so.
Finally, radical communication is unlikely to be a magic bullet. The compelling backgrounds and organizational success of the authors might lead folks to believe that their ideas are guaranteed winners. This is partially attributable to survivorship bias. Did these people succeed because of their ideas, or do their ideas just look good because they were tried at highly successful companies?
A strong example of this type of bias and its failings comes from Jim Collins’s 20-year-old business book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. The best-selling book selected some of the top companies of the era, then identified their common processes and traits in order to distill their keys to success. This made a compelling case at the time, but within 10 years, many of those companies were no longer quite so great. This doesn’t mean that the ideas in the book are worthless, but it does demonstrate that they aren’t infallible.
Improving communication is always a good idea. But don’t attempt to make radical changes without thinking carefully about how you will make them work. And don’t assume that the success their champions experienced will magically transfer to your organization.
If your company or organization is fundamentally messed up, then no one technique is going to help. The important question in this case is: why are you still working there?
For most groups, which have their flaws but are not completely broken, adoption of more open and honest communication is worth attempting.
Start small, with a single team that is willing and able to attempt a new communication style. I prefer to initiate changes with pre-existing teams that regularly work together, rather than assembling groups of evangelists-to-be from various teams, because the existing teams can actually experiment with the tools and techniques in real work situations. With real teams, it is far easier to identify the roadblocks and challenges you will need to address to successfully change existing behaviors.
I’ve previously noted some useful books, and there are many other books and web resources available on the topics of communication and organizational change. But also consider professional training if you are serious about making a significant transformation. When contemplating new ideas, people will often have questions that expert trainers can more readily handle. Professionals can also help you target the techniques that best fit your specific needs. And they can usually make themselves available post-training to handle follow-up questions and complications.
Make sure that you equip folks to both gracefully give and receive feedback, ideas, and advice, particularly when those are challenging. Directly address any structural and people issues your organization will face when adopting the new communication style. You can’t promote honesty and transparency while avoiding difficult topics.
Define what good communication looks like, so that everyone understands what they should bring to a conversation and what they should leave out. This can be a good time to talk about data-driven conversations, metrics, goals, and company values. Stress that the arguments people present should be rooted in truth, measurable data, and shared goals as much as possible, rather than personal whim and opinion.
The intention should be to hold everyone in the organization to the same high standards of communication. Ensure that these standards are clear and that there is an appropriate way to point out when they are not being followed.
If you are in any sort of leadership position, you are already expected to regularly communicate with a range of coworkers. It is in your interest for these interactions to be as direct, honest, and relevant as possible—otherwise, you are wasting both your time and your organization’s time.
So should you adopt some form of radical communication?
As compellingly as their proponents argue for fundamental and disruptive new communication systems, you still may not want to abruptly take them up. You do not need to take an all-or-nothing approach. A better path is to consistently and thoughtfully borrow the most appropriate techniques from a variety of sources and apply them to your organization. This is less exciting (and less radical), but more likely to be valuable.