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The Feedback Paradox: Brutal Honesty, Radical Transparency, Radical Candor and Netflix

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

The Fundamental Importance of Shared Truths

Telling each other what we think is a deeply necessary part of being human. We depend on shared knowledge to live and work together. We are successful as a species because we form groups, share concepts with each other, align on them and act on our understanding. Few of us know how to build a car, or grow our own food, or create a piece of music, let alone all those things. We depend on the shared knowledge and experience of groups of people (some of them very large) cooperating together, to create the world we live in.

To a very large extent, the success of a group depends on how much its members share the same view of what they are doing and why. To do that, we have to share our truth. We have to give each other feedback. We actively depend on others to show us what we cannot see ourselves, to hammer out our shared concepts and make them work.

Michael Lopp, VP Engineering at Slack, puts it well:

“The humans around, watching you act, have both the context and the experience to tell you important observations about both your successes and failures”

Feedback makes us what we are — pieces of incredibly complex networks of skill, experience, and intelligence:

“Thanks to feedback we can become more than simple programs with simple reflexes, and develop more complex responses to the environment,” he writes. “Feedback allows animals like us to follow a purpose.” (University of Sheffield cognitive scientist Tom Stafford — reference).

The Feedback Paradox

The flip side of having evolved to be successful in groups is that we feel the drive to belong at a very deep, very primitive level. Being a member of a group means survival, literally a matter of life and death. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution tell us that being rejected means we lose everything: protection, shelter, the warmth of human connection.

We feel potential rejection as a “social threat”, and we react, physically, in much the same way as we would to a physical threat. Our heart rates go up, our amygdala takes over, we get stressed, ready to fight or flee.

Criticism, at a very deep level, feels like a threat, regardless of how much we know, rationally, that we need it. And, of course, to the person delivering the criticism, it feels like they are delivering a message that might actually endanger another human by pushing them out of the group (“but they might quit!” is the single most common objection I hear in coaching my clients to be more direct).

No wonder it’s hard.

So we have a paradox: exchanging feedback, sharing our truth, is absolutely necessary for groups of people living and working together to be successful. But exchanging feedback can feel, at some deep level, like life or death.

Take Your Medicine, Get Over It: Brutal Honesty, Radical Transparency, Netflix

One way to overcome the Feedback Paradox is what we might call the “take your medicine and get over it” approach.

In these systems, it’s acknowledged that feedback may be hard, but it’s good for you, so you should stiffen your backbone and deal. “I’m going to be brutally honest”, a boss might begin, with the sense that having given that preface, they can say whatever is necessary. The nastiness of “brutal” will be offset by the essential goodness of “honesty”.

A recent article on the culture at Netflix has a lot of this flavor (also hereand here, but read these articles with the usual caveats about how Silicon Valley cultures are represented by journalists currently).

The sense of Netflix culture is one of transparency, autonomy, and a rigorous adherence to super high standards. Managers are expected to apply the “Keeper Test”: “Which of my people, if they told me they were leaving in two months for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight to keep at Netflix?” Those people who don’t make this cut should get moved aside: “…should get a generous severance now, so we can open a slot to try to find a star for that role”.

The famous Netflix culture deck appears to have been removed, and replaced with a page that, among other things, states the following: “we are extraordinarily candid with each other”.

It seems clear that the emotional cost of transparency and truth-telling is either greatly downplayed, or wholly absent. In the WSJ article Reid Hastings himself is described as being “unencumbered by emotion”, and the recently fired executive and friend of Hastings, Neil Hunt says:

“I would not have chosen to move on at that particular moment, but you have to separate the emotion from the logic,”

Ray Dalio’s book, Principles, describes something similar in his experience of building the fabulously successful company, Bridgewater: a culture of tremendous achievement, combined with a determined effort to see, and deal with, the truth of things. The first chapter under “Life Principles” is “Embrace Reality and Deal With It”.

Dalio acknowledges that “Radical Transparency” takes its toll: “While their “upper-level you’s” (my note: rational response) understand the benefits of it, their “lower-level yous” (my note: emotional response) tend to react with a flight-or-fight response. Adapting typically takes about eighteen months, though it varies from individual to individual, and there are those who never successfully adapt to it”

Radical Candor

Radical Candor approaches the Feedback Paradox by introducing the notion of “caring personally” — the idea that in addition to being clear and direct in giving feedback, we should acknowledge the humanity of the conversation, and the emotions of the person receiving it. We should establish, however we can, that we see the other person, and care about them as a fellow human being.

This can be as simple as acknowledging that the feedback is hard to hear, or that we understand their mood today, or as complex as a work relationship of years of support and encouragement. (There are plenty of resources for going deeper into the practical business of caring personally).

“Caring personally” can require work, preparation, thought. We might have to consider what we feel about the other person, what we know about their concerns, what we appreciate about them. And we might have to do those things even if we consider them “difficult”, or don’t like them at all. We might have to be vulnerable in expressing what we do care about in them.

It takes time, effort and patience.

But the result is that we end up giving feedback in such a way that it is genuinely heard, that the very human fear response of the other person is acknowledged, that they hear the challenge whilst feeling supported rather than threatened, they feel connection to the work rather than rejection from it.

(Disclosure: I know Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, and facilitate workshops for the Radical Candor team).

You Can’t Argue With Success. Can You?

Netflix and Bridgewater are massively successful companies. We could (maybe) argue, that they would be even more successful if they added a “caring” axis to their cultures, but really that’s a stretch. They are what they are. Truth is powerful, and if it comes at a cost, a lot of people are willing to pay the price.

“…there is a common understanding that timely and relevant feedback is key to one’s development and healthy culture. Even in my short time here I was able to see the benefits of it — you always know where you stand” (a random quote from Netflix on Glassdoor).

Which is, of course, fine. Different people have different tolerances, goals and tradeoffs to make. A company is a growth machine — that’s how it is evaluated.

But a company is also a community in which human beings spend the majority of their time on earth. In creating a company, we are also creating a large component of the quality of the life for dozens, or hundreds or thousands of people.

That matters.

To me, at least, it feels like Netflix and Bridgewater are outliers — organizations that a strong leader has molded into models for the pursuit of rational truth over the more difficult balance of truth and our emotional reaction to it.

Taking Responsibility For Our Truth

Being “brutally honest” frees us from the bounds of more nuanced human interaction. Discovering what it is we see in another person, figuring out what it is we care about in them, takes work, and time, and attention, and it’s easier just to take go ahead and stick the truth out there, ignoring the cost.

But we should be aware of what we are creating as we build, and work in, our companies. We work, and live, in groups. That’s how we survive. How we share our truths in our groups determines the quality of the lives around us. We have options, and we should consciously choose how we go about this most difficult of human responsibilities.

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