How truthful should you be at work?

A businessman with his hand on his heart
By Andrea Murad, CA Today

16 October 2016

“We want meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical truth and radical transparency.”

This statement summarises the culture at Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds with $150 billion in assets under management and 1700 employees.

Not every company is as extreme as to encourage radical truth and transparency, but every company does have its own unique culture that encourages different communication styles and ways to deliver feedback.

“In principal, feedback is necessary and people really do crave feedback in their job,” said Rebecca Schaumberg, Assistant Professor of Management and Organisations at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“They’re more satisfied if they get more feedback, but feedback is hard to deliver because feedback can be seen as controlling. We often talk about constructive feedback, but delivering feedback is really difficult because it has to have this sweet spot of providing information without controlling their behaviour - you want to maintain their sense of autonomy.”

Professional feedback

Organisational culture often reflects the views of its leadership and the inherent beliefs in how people are. Culture is also one way an organisation can achieve its goals, and how well you can conform to that culture is one key to success at that company.

“The concept of culture can be very different, but organisational culture at the heart is a form of employee control,” Rebecca continued. “You can think about positive organisational cultures where you align the interests of employees with organisations - what’s good for employees is good for the organisation.

"With command and control situations, it’s about controlling the employee solely for the benefit of the organisation.”

Bearing this in mind, CA Today's Andrea Murad takes a look at two different approaches to delivering feedback at work.

The blunt extreme

“Hold people accountable and appreciate them holding you accountable.”

That’s one of Ray Dalio’s principles that governs Bridgewater, and these are outlined in his manifesto 'Principles' which is required reading for every employee.

The written rules provide transparency of what to expect as an employee there. This makes for a challenging work environment that isn’t for everyone - the attrition rate is 25% after 18 months. Such a high level of accountability doesn’t always promote autonomy.

“To have an organisational culture that is characterised by a high level of employee autonomy, freedom or choice, which we think are good things for a job, requires you to have a high level of trust in other people and recognising that giving autonomy helps them thrive,” said Rebecca. “But some people don’t trust that this is a way of motivating people.”

Harsh feedback

Bridgewater’s high level of transparency makes it clear that employees are encouraged to be brutally honest with each other. If you won’t say something to another person’s face, don’t say it at all. If someone changes their story, you can actually go to the tape because all meetings are recorded.

Even when there were tears, videotapes have been replayed as training tools - they wanted employees to understand that challenging others is acceptable and exactly how far they can push a co-worker to hold them accountable.

One of the benefits of such a strong divisive culture is that you know whether or not you’ll fit in fairly fast.

Doug Kisgen, Organisational Consultant and author of Rethink Happy, commented: “If I go into that environment, it’ll either wash me out or I’ll succeed on my own without someone telling me I’m under-performing and I have to go. No one will have to tell me that it’s not for me or that I love this and can stay forever."

The more subtle approach to feedback

Transparency at work is important, but so is respect.

“Work is a business relationship, not a personal relationship,” said Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Indeed. “The goal isn’t to be disrespectful and you want people to be open and honest with you.”

Giving people feedback is good, but how you do that is key to building relationships and motivating people.

For feedback to be beneficial, people need to hear specific examples. Since this isn’t a personal relationship, feedback shouldn’t be delivered in such a way that it’s a personal attack.

Anonymous or general feedback without any specifics can be difficult for someone to use for improvement because they can’t ask for examples or a pattern of behaviour. Everyone has bad days, but a pattern is something that happens repeatedly.

Paul said: “With patterns, people can go back and think about how they can change that behaviour or their perception of them."

Constructive feedback

Rather than defend feedback by going back to a tape, you want to help paint the picture so people can understand what they did and can change their behaviour in the future.

“If you own the feedback, I can ask those specific questions in hopes of becoming a better leader at the end of the day," Paul added.

Just like people have their own needs when it comes to being productive, some people work better in the morning or need their desk set up a certain way, for example, people also need to hear criticism in a certain way.

This is more about understanding how co-workers prefer that constructive criticism delivered to them so that they have control and ownership over their behaviours. Task autonomy is related to job satisfaction and performance.

Rebecca commented: “In groups, you want people to express divergent opinions, disagree and challenge each other but it has to be in the comfort that you’re working together."

When people give opinions in an environment where they fear that they can lose their status, the culture becomes more about self-preservation instead of working towards achieving goals.

“You need divergent opinions, but when you monitor people, they start censoring themselves to keep them safe rather than what’s really and truly helpful,” she concluded.

About the author

Andrea Murad is a New York–based writer. Having worked on both Wall Street and Main Street, she now pursues her passion for words. She covers business and finance, and her work can be found on BBC Capital, Consumers Digest,, Global Finance and


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