Bridgewater Associates and radical truth

by Bruce Kasanoff on July 6, 2011

We live in a world of lies.

For example, how often do you openly criticize your boss, or your CEO? Most people almost never tell the unvarnished truth, simply because doing so is considered rude or socially unwise.

But technology is pushing us hard in the direction of confronting the truth. The more we use digital devices, the faster our shift from a world of hunches to one of hard facts. In the northeastern United States, we pay tolls through E-ZPass, which has the capability to reveal that in your trip from New York to Boston, you averaged seven miles per hour over the speed limit. It’s just a matter of time before some revenue-hungry government decides to automatically send you a speeding ticket.

Security badges, smartphones, GPS units, computer logs, collaborative software, CRM systems, credit and debit cards all collect vast reams of data. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ray Dalio knows where this is headed

Social networks will increasingly rank companies and the services they offer. Why? Because companies routinely manipulate the truth about their offerings. We have a word for this; it’s called marketing.

Social influence shifts the balance of power. It provides a mechanism for vast numbers of people to work together to help each other save money, time and effort. Think this won’t happen? My bet is the economy won’t get better for years to come, and that pretty much everyone will be willing to trade a little time for much better deals.

And so in every corner of our world, data will reveal the truth. It will show who works hard, and who doesn’t. It will show which companies can be trusted, and which cannot. It will paint an unvarnished picture of how you spend your life.

At the moment, almost no companies operate with a relentless dedication to seek out the truth. One exception – which happens to be in my own town of Westport, Connecticut – is Bridgewater Associates, an investment manager overseeing more than $90 billion in assets for its clients.

PDF download of Principles

Founder Ray Dalio believes in radical truth. To work at Bridgewater, you must learn to be comfortable with the truth. In his lengthy and highly detailed Principles document, Dalio says, “At Bridgewater I want people who, above all else, value the intense pursuit of truth and excellence, and through it, the rapid improvement of themselves and Bridgewater.”

Dalio also believes that companies need to evolve and adapt in order to succeed. Radical truth makes this possible, while anything that obscures the truth hinders necessary adaptations.

He continues, “Since I believe that radical truth and radical openness are essential for this rapid evolutionary process to occur, I also believe that these need to be essential elements of our culture. I believe that radical openness enhances truthfulness (which is essential in getting at the best answers) because it prevents the secretiveness that breeds hidden agendas and stands in the way of open debate.”

Eighteen months to get used to the truth?

Dalio has observed that new employees take about eighteen months to get used to a culture that relentlessly seeks out the truth. At Bridgewater, it is a duty to point out when your superior is wrong, and it is utterly unacceptable to speak about a person behind his or her back. This means that when you see someone do something wrong or misguided, you need to tell them.

Many new hires bounce right out of the company. They aren’t comfortable with sentiments like this one, included in Dalio’s Principles, “At Bridgewater people have to value getting at truth so badly that they are willing to humiliate themselves to get it.”

Dalio continues, “It is more heroic than humiliating to objectively explore one’s own mistakes and weaknesses, so doing so should engender admiration – not humiliation. We need and admire people who can suspend their egos to get at truth and evolve toward excellence, so we ignore ego-based impediments to truth.”

Think about this. You’ve spent your career as a professional investor. After a long recruitment process, you start to work at Bridgewater. A few months in, your colleagues start openly questioning your judgment. They say you are not particularly perceptive, that you use outdated logic to form your opinions and that even junior members of your group are currently adding more value.

You might think: how about a little respect? I’ve been in this business for twenty years. Doesn’t that give me a little breathing room, a little respect?

Nope.

Dalio says, “I regularly get pressure to let great people avoid exploring their mistakes and weaknesses because they find it painful… we can’t compromise on this because that process of exploration is healthy for Bridgewater, healthy for them and key to our culture. I also believe that to allow opt-outs would legitimize two sets of rules and put our radically honest way of being in jeopardy. I want great people who embrace even harsh truths.”

Radical truth requires vast cultural changes

You don’t need me to tell you that most people aren’t ready to humiliate themselves to reveal the truth. I can’t name many executives who care more about the truth than their own egos, income or lifestyle. Few of my friends or relatives wish to confront the truth about their eating habits, fitness practices, or work ethic.

But radical truth is an inevitable consequence of technological innovation, and we need to start taking a harder look at corporate cultures like Bridgewater Associates. Like it or not, we are all headed in that direction.

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