Ray Dalio, Randall Munroe and I Think Alike – Culture of Courage & Candor

On the matter of bad behavior of complaining against others behind their backs, Ray Dalio, Randall Munroe and I share the same viewpoint. This article starts with Randall’s cartoon, Ray’s and my quotes on the subject and then discusses the causes of and solutions for this problem. Please note that this article is not about ethical whistleblowers, people who have no choice but to complain secretly about someone in a position of great power and formal authority above them engaged in wrongdoing. Backstabbing (the subject of this article) and whistle-blowing are two completely different things.1 This post is about someone complaining against his peers, those he sees as  competition or those who may be in his way.

Cartoon from XKCD by Randall Munroe

Ray’s quote:

I learned that I want the people I deal with to say what they really believe and to listen to what others say in reply, in order to find out what is true. I learned that one of the greatest sources of problems in our society arises from people having loads of wrong theories in their heads—often theories that are critical of others—that they won’t test by speaking to the relevant people about them. Instead, they talk behind people’s backs, which leads to pervasive misinformation. I learned to hate this because I could see that making judgments about people so that they are tried and sentenced in your head, without asking them for their perspective, is both unethical and unproductive.2 So I learned to love real integrity (saying the same things as one believes)3 and to despise the lack of it.4

— Ray Dalio, an American businessman and founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater is the world’s largest hedge fund company with US$122 billion in assets under management (as of 2011). In 2012, Dalio appeared on the annual Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2011 and 2012 he was listed by Bloomberg Markets as one of the 50 Most Influential people. Institutional Investor’s Alpha ranked him No. 2 on their 2012 Rich List.
Quote sourced from Principles by Ray Dalio. Emphasis mine. Brief bio of Ray Dalio from Wikipedia. Thanks to my colleague Leon Shklar for introducing me to Ray’s philosophy.

My quote:

When someone complains negatively about a problem, person or situation it often indicates a lack of courage, skill, desire & collaboration required to solve it. Worse, it may be for nefarious reasons.

Senior executives should listen to and reward employees who focus on solutions and support their coworkers. People in leadership should be wary of people who habitually complain about others. Since complainers misleadingly pretend to be smart or helpful, you should always question their motives, challenge their statements and let them know you will ask for others’ viewpoints.

Once you know about such behavior, you should strongly discourage it. The first step is to make sure you don’t reward it. When a senior executive simply listens to a complainer and does not challenge their statements and does not tell they will solicit others opinions as well, the complainer may feel rewarded with the executive’s attention and implicit approval. Things an executive hearing the complaints can say:

  • What did [the target person] say in response when you told them this?
  • Have you spoken to [the target person] about this clearly, honestly and comprehensively? I will reach out to them to understand their viewpoint. (This makes it clear to the complainer that they can’t get away misrepresenting things behind another’s back.)
  • Do you have a collaborative solution to offer that makes it a win/win for both you and [the target person]?

— Rajiv Pant
Quote originally published on Rajiv’s Google+ Page

Why badmouthing others behind their backs is bad for business…

Its toxicity kills productivity. Robert I. Sutton, Professor of Management science at the Stanford Engineering School and a researcher in the field of Evidence-based management writes: [emphasis mine]

… if you want people to think you are smart, apparently you can feed their stereotypes by demeaning others…  I should also warn you that although unleashing your inner asshole may help persuade people of your intellectual superiority, we also show in The Knowing-Doing Gap and Hard Facts that the climate of fear created by such nastiness undermines team and organizational effectiveness.  Potential victims become afraid to try (or even mention) new ideas and hesitate to report mistakes or problems out of fear that the resulting anger and humiliation will be aimed at them.

It creates distrust among coworkers which hurts collaboration and productivity. It distracts focus away from productive work to “watching your back”. It lowers morale at work, which is also bad for business.

On the perpetrator’s side, it diverts creative energy away from business innovation, solving problems and achieving greatness. Instead the perpetrator’s talents, time and tricks are applied towards crafty, cunning and cruel behavior that only hurts the organization.

At its worst, when it becomes a rampant problem, it can lead to costly lawsuits against the organization. When you develop a habit of badmouthing someone behind their back thinking your accusations will remain secret, and you keep getting away with it for a while, you are likely to start saying things that cross the line.

 

Why it happens…

So why do people engage in smear campaigns? Simply because they have found them to be useful for their benefit in the past. There is ample evidence in multiple fields ranging from election campaigns to organizational behavior that despite being immoral, unethical and unfair, smear campaigns can sometimes be highly effective for the perpetrators. At least for the short term. In an organization with a bad culture it benefits the perpetrator every time they do it and there are minimal harmful consequences to the perpetrator.

I asked my friend Professor Jeffery Pfeffer, a well-respected guru of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business why such behavior exists. He explained that “It persists because it often works, and it often works because negativity and criticism seem more profound than positive statements.” He pointed me to his5 article The Smart-Talk Trap published in Harvard Business Review and the article Brilliant but Cruel by Teresa Amabile, now a professor at Harvard Business School. (The word “brilliant” here alludes to a pretense of brilliance, not the real thing.) Those two articles explain that people who disparage others or the work of others falsely appear to look smart and competent, even when they are not so in reality. Basically, it is a cheap trick that works until it is exposed.

The false feeling of being honest (when in reality they are being dishonest) in supposedly exposing  the flaws in others and/or other’s work provides misguided gratification to the perpetrators. When the important person to whom the clandestine complaint is being made to (and it is usually an important person) listens to the complainer in private and engages in that conversation, the complainer sees that as a reward. This encourages more of such bad behavior.

An even bigger mistake a person in a position of power can make after hearing a one-sided complaint is to substantially reward the complainer. By a substantial reward, I mean giving a promotion, power or pleasure of winning. That is not only unjust, unfair and unwise, but a display of poor judgement.

A root cause of this problem is lack of courage. Another is insecurity. It takes courage to walk up to someone you have a problem with, to tell them that on their face with candor especially when you are insecure inside that your accusations will be able to sustain to a fair trial. It is much easier to be a coward and do it hoping the accused will never find out, at least not until it is too late.

Insecurity and an inner lack of confidence in the merits of their accusations are behind complaints that are supposedly backed by unverifiable sources. When someone complains about another and says “others have also complained about [the target person], but they confided in me privately and wish to remain anonymous,” the listeners’ alarm bells should go off. This method of trying to sully someone’s reputation by adding the supposed support of unidentified others is weak at best and disingenuous at worst. There is no way for the leader to know what the unknown people actually said, and if they did complain in what context and what state of mind it happened. Worse, this perpetrator could have baited them unwittingly into speaking negatively about someone they otherwise wouldn’t have. Remember that the complainer is not an unbiased journalist with integrity writing an article citing anonymous sources (and even they have to verify their sources to an Editor), but is most likely an opinionated person with an agenda. If you are a leader, think like a judge or a journalist. Don’t just believe what you hear, especially this type of BS.

On the leader’s side, the one to whom the one-sided complaint is brought, the problem is also a lack of courage. It takes courage to tell someone who is seemingly confiding in you and appears to be trusting you that you do not entertain such bad behavior and that you will put this person and yourself in a deeply uncomfortable position by bringing the accused in to the discussion.

Especially in this day and age of political correctness, being sneaky, disingenuous and cowardly is much easier than being open, honest and courageous.

Unless your organization has a great culture.

…and how to discourage it

So how should executives in an organization discourage such bad behavior? With a culture of continuous and consistent fairness.

In many cases, complaining behind others’ backs also badly backfires. I mentioned earlier that it is cheap trick that works until it is exposed. An effective way to hinder such behavior is to spread awareness about it, for example, by sharing this article. By making it a well-known fact in your organization that such behavior is bad for the business and backfires for the perpetrator, you eliminate its effectiveness.

People for whom such behavior has backfired, causing them harm instead of benefitting them, learn to not do it anymore, provided they quickly realized that it was their bad behavior that hurt them. The human mind learns best when the feedback is immediate or comes soon after.

Therein lies the key to solving this problem in your organization.

Senior executives should build and maintain a culture holds open courts. What does that mean? This:

  • There are no trials held in private. Both parties must be present when any arguments are made in front of the judges (deciders, people with power). In other words, senior executives never entertain clandestine complaints made secretly behind the accused’s backs.
  • The accused always gets a fair hearing. If the accused does not have the debating skills to defend their case, the senior executives should assign someone strong to support them in a public-defender-like role. Winners should not be decided on the basis or their ability to win debates, but on the merits of their case.
  • Senior executives should be careful to never reward this bad behavior, and not even give the complainer the pleasure of indulging them in such a conversation.
  • Most importantly, senior executives must model good, desirable and fair behavior themselves.

The last point is especially important. People look up to successful, effective senior executives. People copy the behaviors they see emanating from the successful person. If senior executives badmouth other people behind their backs, people who look up to them are likely to emulate that behavior. If they see senior executives as respectful, supportive and caring of others, they will learn that. Mirror neurons in action. Which reminds me:

Look in the mirror.

Further Reading

Some neuroscience research related to this

(Shared by Cameron Brown)

 In person learning

badmouthing-behind-back-bad-for-business-cover-slide

  1. For whistle-blowing, there are formal established means. For example, speaking with legal authorities, human resources, or journalists, depending on the situation. []
  2. It is unethical because a basic principle of justice is that everyone has the right to face his accuser. And it is unproductive because it does not lead to the exploration of “Is it true?” which can lead to understanding and improvement. — Ray Dalio []
  3. I do not mean that you should say everything you think, just that what you do say matches your thoughts. — Ray Dalio []
  4. The word “integrity” is from the Latin root “integer,” which means “one” i.e., that you are the same inside and out. Most people would be insulted if you told them that they don’t have integrity—but how many people do you know who tell people what they really think? — Ray Dalio []
  5. co-authored with Bob Sutton  []

HR Classification and Discretionary/Business Job Titles for Makers, Managers and Leaders in Technology

This article presents an organization system and policy for job titles of makermanager and leader roles in technology staffs.

Separate job titles for HR classification and discretionary/business use are used at many technology organizations, ranging from medium-sized, innovative and fast-moving companies to large, established and enterprise technology companies.1 This is a well-established practice that balances HR requirements with the rapid pace of innovation and change in job functions. They each serve a different purpose: HR classification titles are designed for use by information systems and discretionary/business titles are designed for use by humans.

HR Classification Job Titles are meant to be comparable in the entire organization (across different departments) and sometimes even comparable with other organizations. The purpose of these is to maintain standardization across the organization for HR purposes such as payroll, benefits and eligibility for things. The number of HR classification titles at each role level should be finite and small. They do not change unless there is a major change in the person’s job like a promotion or new functional role. They map to the employee’s internal level, status and eligibility for things in the company. They follow a standardized naming convention for logical classification.

Discretionary/Business Job Titles, on the other hand, are used to describe the job (or a key part of the job) in easy to understand language. A person’s discretionary/business title can change, if desired, with smaller changes in the role compared to what warrants a HR classification title change. These titles are named in human-friendly language (and do not need to be worded for logical classification like HR classification titles). Discretionary/business titles are usually the ones employees put on their email signatures, business cards, online forums and social media sites. The number of discretionary job titles at a job level is limited only by the requesters’ imagination.

Below are some examples of HR classification titles along with examples of some corresponding discretionary/business titles. Employees may propose their discretionary/business titles to their supervisors. Most of the titles below are for technology staff, but some non-technology titles are included for comparison.

HR Classification Job Titles Examples of Corresponding Discretionary/BUSINESS Job Titles
  • Engineer
  • Senior Engineer
(Software)
  • iOS Software Developer
  • Software Engineer, Mobile Applications, Android
  • User Experience Engineer
  • Release Engineer
  • Product Engineer
  • Software Development Engineer in Test
  • Test Automation Engineer
  • Web Developer
  • Mobile Apps Developer
  • JavaScript Programmer
  • Code Ninja2
  • Software Artisan
  • Developer Advocate3
  • Video Software Developer

These are software engineers, also known as computer programmers and software developers. The key job requirement is that they write software code.

When appropriate, the prefix “Senior” may be applied to these titles except where noted.

  • Engineer
  • Senior Engineer
(Systems)
  • Systems Engineer
  • Systems Administrator
  • Unix Systems Engineer
  • Infrastructure Engineer
  • Network Engineer
  • Security Engineer
  • Windows Systems Administrator
  • Unix Guru4
  • Video Systems Engineer
  • Robotics Engineer
  • Hardware Engineer
  • Web & App Servers Administrator
  • Database Engineer
  • Database Administrator
  • Sysadmin
  • Email Administrator
These are systems, networks and other engineers. They implement, maintain and upgrade systems. While they are not required to write as much code as software engineers, they are likely to do some scripting to assist in their jobs.
When appropriate, the prefix “Senior” may be applied to these titles except where noted.
  • Analyst
  • Senior Analyst
  • Technical Analyst
  • Quality Assurance Analyst
  • Quality Assurance Tester5
  • Business Analyst
  • Product Analyst
  • Functional Analyst
  • Financial Analyst
  • Business Intelligence Analyst
  • Technology Support Analyst

Analysts are generally not required to write code, but some may.

When appropriate, the prefix “Senior” may be applied to these titles except where noted.

  • Designer
  • Senior Designer
  • Graphics Designer
  • Photo Designer
  • Art Illustrator
  • Graphics Artist
  • Visual Designer

When appropriate, the prefix “Senior” may be applied to these titles except where noted.

  • Manager
  • Senior Manager
  • Technology Manager
  • Engineering Manager
  • Software Development Manager
  • Manager of Quality Assurance for Mobile Apps
  • Manager of Engineering for Product X
  • Staff Software Engineer6
  • Lead Software Engineer7
  • Software Architect
  • Applications Architect
  • Systems Architect
  • Program Manager
When appropriate, the prefix “Senior” may be applied to these titles except where noted.
  • Director
  • Senior Director
  • Technology Director
  • Video Technology Director
  • Director of Engineering for Food & Dining Products
  • Director of Content Management Systems
  • Director of Quality for Products XY & Z
  • Distinguished Software Engineer8
  • Program Director
  • Director of Project Management
  • Director of Products XY & Z
When appropriate, the prefix “Senior” may be applied to these titles except where noted.
  • Vice President
  • Senior Vice President
  • Executive Vice President
  • President
  • CEO
  • Chairperson
  • Board Member
  • Chief Technology Officer
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Chief Scientist
  • Fellow
  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Chief Financial Officer
(any title)
  • Founder
  • Co-Founder
  • Emeritus

Often used in combination with other words, these can be used in a discretionary/business title, but obviously, only if they are true.

Discretionary Titles are official, significant and used inside and outside the organization. Therefore, like HR Classification Titles, they also need to be approved in advance.

Policy and Guidelines for Discretionary/Business Titles

  1. Assignment of discretionary/business titles (and changes to them) must be approved in advance by the same people who approve assignment of HR classification titles. Once assigned, it must be documented in the HR information system.
    • Typically this requires two people: 1. the immediate supervisor of the employee, and 2. an HR representative to comply with these guidelines. In case of doubt, dispute or disagreement it should go to a department head, staffing committee or similar body for confirmation.
    • The benefit of this process is the employee will feel good in knowing that the discretionary title is official, recognized and endorsed by the company.
  2. Please refer to the examples above see what types of discretionary/business titles are likely to be acceptable.
  3. Inappropriate, offensive or harmful language is disallowed. (E.g. “Code Nazi” and “Architect of Terror” are not ok.)
  4. It must not reflect poorly on the organization. (E.g. “Underutilized Engineer” and “Dissatisfied Manager” are not ok.)
  5. It must not make unauthorized use of trademarks, copyrighted material or anything else that is likely to run afoul of the law, policies or best practices. (E.g. “Facebook API Engineer” is not ok unless you work at Facebook.)
  6. It must reasonably relate to or represent the job, at least partly. It can’t be completely meaningless to the job. (“E.g. “Ninja” is likely not ok, but “Code Ninja” is likely to be ok, provided it is not someone else’s trademark.)
  7. The title must not exaggerate the scope, authority (decision making or staff), or level of influence of the role. (E.g. you must not call yourself just “Head of Software Development” unless you are the one and only head of all software development.)
  8. When the employee and their supervisor do not see the need for separate HR classification and discretionary/business titles, they can be the same. (E.g. Software Engineer).
  9. When required, sensible and appropriate, the discretionary and HR classification titles may be written together in combined form. (For example, on a resume or biography, the employee can write “Director & Distinguished Software Engineer”, “Staff Software Engineer (Manager-level position)”, “Vice President & Fellow”, etc.)
  10. When in doubt, consult with your department head or HR representative.
  1. For example, discretionary/business titles are used at Oracle. []
  2. Fun titles may be acceptable as long as they match the role []
  3. Assuming that the developer advocate needs to also be a software engineer []
  4. Another example of a fun title that matches the role []
  5. For testers who are not software development engineers. Those who are would have an HR classification title of software engineer []
  6. Staff Software Engineer is a people-manager level maker role. It is equivalent to an architect level, but unlike an architect who often reviews others’ code, a staff software engineer is generally an individual contributor. []
  7. Equivalent to Staff Software Engineer []
  8. The word distinguished is reserved for software engineers who are contributing value at the people-director level. At the VP level, the distinguished engineer becomes a Fellow. The bar for earning this title is exceptionally high and requires extraordinary achievements. E.g. inventing a programming language or software framework used by hundreds of people in multiple companies. Distinguished Engineers are typically well respected outside the organization. Prefixes such as Senior cannot be applied to the title Distinguished Engineer. []

Case for a Consistent, Comprehensible & Cost-Effective Vacation Policy

This article makes a case for having a vacation policy that is simple, sane and standard across the organization.

Some organizations have unnecessarily complicated vacation policies that require a lot of labor and time to implement, manage and support exceptions for. That is substandard because such vacation policies are costly for the organization, they distract from the organization’s other work and they make some employees feel unfairly treated.

Most companies would be better off with a simple vacation policy for all full-time employees.1 Here is a such a vacation policy. It can be described in one sentence as:

Every full-time employee gets 25 days (5 weeks) of paid time off per calendar year.

Detailed explanation and justification

To some managers in the United States, it may initially seem that 5 weeks is too much for entry level employees or workers at the early stages of their careers. 25 days is not too much, especially considering that these also include paid personal days off. Many organizations already give employees about 5 personal paid days off (in addition to their vacation days) to use for personal/family/religious/social events, the day before/after major holiday etc.

An example

So you could think of this policy as: Every FTE in the organization gets 20 days (4 weeks) of paid “regular” vacation, plus 5 more paid personal days off per each calendar year.

Here is one way the 5 weeks could be scheduled: 4 four weeks set aside for “regular” vacation would be meant to be used for typical vacations. As long as it is ok with the employee’s supervisor, it could be one 4-week long trip to another country, two 2-week long vacations, or even 20 separate Fridays taken off during a calendar year.

The 5 remaining days could be set aside as “personal days” would be meant to be used for other purposes like birthdays, anniversaries, personal/family/religious/social events, needing a day off at the last moment to run errands, take off the day before/after a company holiday.

This system actually makes no distinction between regular vacation and personal days off. The above is simply an example of how an employee (in consultation with their supervisor) decide to use the 25 vacation days.

Fair, consistent, and simple

Every FTE from the CEO to an entry-level engineer gets the same number of paid days off.

Vacation time is a necessary downtime for employees to relax, recharge and refresh. It should not be viewed as a perk. By giving senior-level executives more vacation days and making vacation seem like compensation sends the wrong message at multiple levels: Is the organization implying that senior-level people put in less time and effort? Is it implying that being away from work more is a valuable and desirable thing that employees should strive for?

Senior executives and entry-level employees alike get a two-day weekend. They get the same number of company holidays. They have the same sick-day policies. They should also have the same number of vacation days per year.

All prospective employees are informed of this consistent policy: 5 weeks vacation for all full-time employees, regardless of role, level and compensation. This eliminates distracting negotiations during the hiring process about vacation days. After which, existing employees can feel demoralized learning that some of their peers have more vacation days for no fair reason. Unlike compensation, vacation time is not private information. In a team that works closely together, people can often observe how much vacation their colleagues are taking if they choose to.

Speaking of sick-days, a detailed discussion of that is currently beyond the scope of this article and likely the subject of an article about employee health policy. Sick days should be separate from vacation.

Accrual, carry over, and Trading

Vacation days are not collectors items. Also, they do not have any cash value as per this policy. Employees should be encouraged to use all of their vacation days each calendar year. Taking vacation is good for the employees. It increases morale, productivity and innovation.2 So it is good for the company. Vacation days may not be carried over from one calendar year to the next, nor can they be transferred to other employees. They can definitely not be redeemed for cash.

In this system, vacation days do not accrue incrementally over the year, so employees can’t redeem any unused ones for money even if they leave the organization. You could think of it this way: They accrue all together at the end of the year. When an employee leaves the company, they are not expected to pay the company back for their vacation days used either.

As for when a new employee (or any employee) can take vacation, that should be discussed between the employee and their supervisor and needs to be signed off by the supervisor. Use trust and common sense. In almost all cases, it would not make sense to take a month-long vacation after just one day at the job.

As for the first calendar year of new employee’s joining, we can apply the following simple formula: The number of vacation days you get in your first calendar year is adjusted based on the number of weeks remaining in that year, using whole numbers rounded up. For example, if you join in the middle of the year with 26 weeks remaining (half the total number of weeks in the year), you get 13 days of vacation that first calendar year (half of 25 days, rounded up).

“Unlimited” vacation policies

These days, a few companies offer open-ended “unlimited” vacation policies, where there is no pre-set limit to the number of vacation days an employee can take, within reason.3 Realistically, these are not unlimited vacation policies, the same way credit cards with no pre-set spending limit don’t allow unlimited spending.

The data on these open-ended vacation policies is not yet conclusive, but initial data indicates that they have a number of potential drawbacks:

  1. They have been shown to result in employees taking less vacation time4
  2. They pressure employees to keep working during their “vacations”, which defeats the purpose and benefits of vacations.
  3. They put employees in uncomfortable situations with their employers. For example, when an employee gives 4-weeks notice to leave and wants to use the last one or two weeks for vacation. In such a situation, the employer is likely to feel taken advantage of under an “unlimited” vacation policy.

For these reasons, I recommend this 25 vacation days per calendar year policy over so called “unlimited”  policies.

Benefits

A clear, consistent and complete vacation policy like this is likely to lower administrative costs, make employees happier and increase productivity. It is also likely to make the company more attractive to potential hires and improve retention.

  1. By full-time employee (FTE), I am referring to a person directly employed by the organization who is expected to work ~40 hour/week, typically on a Monday through Friday schedule. []
  2. The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks Are Good for Productivity: article in The Atlantic  []
  3. IBM’s un-vacation policy: All you need, all the time: article in The New York Times  []
  4. Companies Offer “Unlimited” Vacation Time Because They Know Perfectly Well People Won’t Use It (Slate)
    How One Company’s Unlimited Vacation Policy Totally Backfired (Inc.) []