“Do important things” is often invoked as a rallying cry in
these pages, but this time I want to talk about something more important than innovation, invention, entrepreneurship, and all the rest. I want to talk about
dharma. More specifically, I want to talk about your dharma.
Classically speaking, dharma represents both cosmic law and
order – our universal duty - as well as reality itself. Upholding your dharma, then,
refers to both your ultimate responsibility, and upholding the truth. It is no accident that I say your dharma. The truth, while in one
sense absolute, is also deeply personal, and rooted in the enduring power of
With commitment to the truth as the first principle, your
code of conduct is simple: When you see something that's broken or bad, you have to say something about it or fix it yourself. Just as
importantly, when you hear something, listen. It’s not just about the success
of the organization, but also a moral imperative not to let anyone you care
about fly off a cliff.
In practice, this is extremely painful. Honest,
unadulterated feedback is as emotionally alien as it is intellectually obvious,
whether giving or receiving. Confronting the truth together is a social
endeavor, yet it flies in the face of all social convention and pleasantries. Unlike
you or me, the truth doesn’t have feelings – but that is precisely why it’s the truth.
Of course, it’s easier to face hard truths when we talk
about collective failures. These are important to address, and can be
invaluable object lessons for the organization writ large. Individual failures,
however, are the ones you, and only you, can control. Accordingly, the most
painful and most vital incarnation of the truth is individual feedback – all in
the service of discovering and fulfilling your dharma.
This matters on multiple levels. In practical terms, nothing
happens unless you make it happen. Day to day, the bias towards action is one
of the most valuable things you can institute.
Without your concerted action, things like planning, analysis, strategy,
et cetera are just distractions from an empty center.
However, dharma is also about the unlocking the essence of the
individual. Facing your dharma means stripping away the pretense, delusion, and
distractions to reveal who you are
and what you are meant to be doing. You
uphold your dharma in the service of both the individual and the collective. For
the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, the parts cannot seek
anonymity and cover in the whole.
feedback comes from a foundation of investment in the individual. The
underlying intentions need to include the opportunity to grow from mistakes and
the willingness to help someone get there. We all like to talk about investing
in people, but it’s important to internalize that hiring isn’t the end of the
road. The hard part starts after - especially for the most innately talented
individuals. If you don’t give them feedback, you’re just as guilty of coasting on
their talent as they are, and you will inevitably reap the
As many a wise master has observed, there are countless paths to dharma – indeed, there are as many forms of dharma as there are seekers. Everyone
arrives at the truth in a different way, as evidenced by leaders as diverse as
Ray Dalio, Prof. Carole Robin, and Peter Thiel.
Ray Dalio’s Principles is more than required reading at Bridgewater, and
Bridgewater’s culture of “radical transparency” is almost infamous for the
degree to which honest feedback is emphasized. Dalio’s most basic principles states:
“Truth - more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality- is the
essential foundation for producing good outcomes.”
It seems simple enough, but
the real genius of Principles
he mediates between the truth as an absolute and the individual experience:
“Above all else, I want you to think for yourself - to decide 1) what you want,
2) what is true and 3) what to do about it.”
Dalio also caveats that “you
can probably get what you want out of life if you can suspend your ego”, and
the same can be said of feedback. For most of us, this will be the hardest battle.
One of Peter Thiel’s great maxims is
“Listen carefully to smart people with whom you disagree.” Thiel is a renowned
contrarian, but he didn’t hone his worldview in a vacuum. One of his greatest
strengths has been assembling teams with the built-in structural tension needed
to confront bias and complacency head-on and do transformative things. To be
frank, this includes the ability pre-select for thick skin. No one who was at PayPal in the early days
would describe it as a touchy-feely place – but factoring in
the type of talent it attracted, that was part of the genius of the design. Pre-eBay PayPal practiced a form of directness that probably wouldn’t have flown at most
other companies – but look at the record of the PayPal mafia versus any other
group of corporate alumni.
Professor Carole Robin of Stanford’s Graduate School of
Business is best known for her popular “Interpersonal Dynamics” course,
affectionately nicknamed “Touchy Feely”. As Professor Robin describes,
“"It's about learning how to create productive professional
relationships," and feedback is a key ingredient. Robin’s approach
may seem like a high-empathy yin to the low-empathy yang of radical
transparency or the PayPal model, but many of the basics are the same. Robin
advises doing it early, and above all practicing often. She also emphasizes the
need to avoid shaming and to “stay on your side of the net” by not making the critique
personal – in other words, don’t aim for the ego. Finally, listening is crucial – in
Touchy-Feely speak, “It takes two to know one".
Recognizing there are many paths to dharma, where do you
start? The most important thing is to take that first step, practicing feedback
early and often, and making it a non-negotiable component of every consequential
effort. To have any chance of sticking, it has to become the new normal.
One of the great tragedies of working life is the tendency
to treat feedback like taxes: a necessary evil to be addressed annually or
quarterly. Too often, feedback is also synonymous with either punitive or
back-patting exercises. You need to inoculate people against these
associations by starting early, before there’s a crisis. Of course, as new
people arrive, you will be forced to begin the acclimation process from
scratch, because organizations that practice truthful feedback as a way of life
are rare, and individuals for whom it comes naturally are rarer still.
Another complication is that people tend to be lopsided in
their feedback. Those with lower empathy have the easiest time giving feedback.
It’s intuitive, even reflexive, but these people tend to be terrible at giving
feedback in a diplomatic way. This is your opportunity to suspend the
ego, assume it’s not a personal attack, and consider the substance of what is
being said. Eventually, you realize that seemingly low-empathy individuals are
often just carrying out their dharma. Make no mistake, it is a gift.
On the other hand those with high empathy are best suited to
diplomatically give feedback, but struggle to make it appropriately critical
because the very thought of doing so causes pain. An empathetic style can
also be a gift, but only when personal sensitivity is complemented by the
courage to overcome the inertial bias against criticism. Above all, recall that
this is the real world. There is no perfect Goldilocks balance. The key
is to get started with the ingredients you already have.
You should also consider the source – except when you
shouldn’t. Remember Peter Thiel’s smart people who disagree with you. With any luck,
you will have colleagues who possess deep credibility in areas you don’t, and
you should make extra effort to listen to them. On the other hand, sometimes
incisive and true feedback will come from people with no apparent legitimacy. When
your ego cries out “who the hell are you?”, turn the other way and focus on the
substance of the criticism.
What if you’re wrong? This is always a possibility, giving
or receiving, but because you are already thinking critically, it’s not a
meaningful risk. If there is any possibility in your mind that something is
wrong, confront it together. Either you avert disaster, or you discover why it
was in fact right. Both are preferred outcomes.
Feedback is especially hard at any meaningful scale. The
larger you get, the tougher it is to guarantee a high standard of intellectual
honesty, while cracks in the foundation become increasingly subtle and
imperceptible. In many ways, it’s good to maintain a healthy reserve of fear of
what you might become - look no further than our political system to see what
happens when the truth is focus-grouped beyond all recognition.
As with almost any worthy endeavor, the pursuit of your dharma
involves constantly raising the bar. It is never easy to ask people to be more
than they have been, and to address when something has stopped working, or
never did. It is doubly hard because these realizations often come when people
are working their absolute hardest. As painful as it is to admit that someone’s
best isn’t good enough, it doesn’t make it any less true. In fact, it becomes
that much more important.
It’s fine to say failure is not an option in moments of
bravado, but you know inside that abolishing failure – at least the lower-case
kind – is not only unrealistic, but leads to denial and paralysis. It’s
entirely reasonable, on the other hand, to insist that you won’t accept failure
without feedback. Only by confronting the day-to-day truth can you hope to unlock
the greater truth of your highest potential, as an organization and as
individuals. That is good karma.