Your best opportunity to get better at your job is one of the easiest to miss

Nothing like a good conflict
Nothing like a good conflict
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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At Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, employees constantly tell their colleagues exactly what they think of them—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s like your annual performance review, except it happens all day, every day.

Nearly every meeting is recorded to ensure full transparency and learning opportunities for all. And every morsel of feedback is permanently documented on proprietary apps meant to create, as Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio puts it, a “pointillist painting” of each employee’s strengths and weaknesses, for all of her or his colleagues to see.

It sounds fine and good, until you’re the one being roasted in front of your whole team, or even the whole company. Which, I can attest, really sucks. (I worked at Bridgewater for a year before switching back to a career in journalism.) But there are ways to cope and even turn this pain into something positive, as anyone who has lasted more than a few weeks at Bridgewater will tell you.

According to Dalio, whose book Principles: Life and Work explains his thinking and serves as a manifesto on Bridgewater’s culture, we all have “higher” and “lower-level” selves. These two selves respond to feedback with a logical drive learn, and primal emotions, respectively. Our “lower-level” selves aren’t bad, per se, but their defensiveness gets in the way of efficiently understanding our skills and setbacks.

Still, so long as you can trust that your colleagues believe in your potential, the pain of harsh feedback rarely outweighs the value of learning how you can be better.

Knowledge indeed is power, but knowledge about yourself means nothing if you don’t accept and internalize it. And that’s why the biggest opportunity to scale your success at work isn’t feedback–it’s how you react to feedback. Dalio and his colleagues recently unpacked this theory on WorkLife, a new TED podcast hosted by Wharton professor Adam Grant, the renowned organizational psychologist and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, which has a chapter on Dalio and Bridgewater.

Turning pain to pleasure

“When I have somebody tell me that I did something badly, my ego kicks in,” Kiran Rao, head of finance strategy at Bridgewater, explains on an episode of WorkLife. It’s easy, he said, to reflexively respond with thoughts like “That is so wrong. How can that possibly true? I’ve done all these things in my life and how could I be that person?”

“That’s what I call proving mode,” Grant responds. “It’s the primal, emotional reaction, the lower-level you. But your brain has another, higher-level setting. It’s improving mode. That’s your inner Olympic diver, who wants to know exactly how good you are and every single thing you can do to get better. Improving mode means you’re always a work in progress. At Bridgewater, the thinking is that if you’re exposed to feedback all the time, you get better at hearing that improving voice.”

But as Rao tells it, the logical, upper-level self has a much softer voice when feedback is offered: “[It’s] saying, ‘Yeah, it’s been a rough year, it hasn’t been such an impactful year, Kiran. You aren’t really accomplishing your goals.’ That’s not so surprising. The difference though is that those two voices are very different in amplitude at that moment. The lower-level me [is] screaming.”

“So the two yous will always still be battling at some level,” Grant asks.

“I think so,” Rao replies. “And to me the beauty is I can see that now. It used to take me a month or two to recognize that and come back to an even keel. With Ray [Dalio], it takes a microsecond.”

Dalio confirms this assessment. But what’s really freakish, Grant suggests, is not only that Dalio feels less pain than the rest of us in response to criticism, but that he has trained himself to redirect the pain into a pleasure signal. “Over years of seeing that negative feedback leads to positive outcomes, it almost sounds like he enjoys hearing it now,” says Grant.

Again, Dalio confirms this assessment. “It’s totally understandable that when [criticism is] sprung on you it takes you by surprise,” he says. “It’s an amygdala response and the amygdala is the fight or flight and it is very short-term thing. But in some period of time that’s going to fade. And then, if at that moment you reflect right, that pain plus reflection equals progress.”

Feedback about feedback

An important tenant behind Dalio’s beliefs about feedback is that we ought to be given feedback not only about whatever we’ve done poorly, but also about how we react to and reflect on being told that we’ve done something poorly.

“People admire the person who fails and deals with it well, so much more than they admire even the person who succeeds,” he tells Grant.

It is in a way, Grant says, a “second score.”

“Every time I get feedback, I rate myself on how well I took the feedback. That’s a habit we can all develop,” Grant says, summarizing Dalio’s approach. “When someone gives you feedback, they’ve already evaluated you. So it helps to remind yourself that the main thing they’re judging is whether you’re open or defensive.”

We don’t always realize when we’re being defensive, which is why we need to cultivate and call on our “challenge networks,” say Grant and Dalio. These are the people at work and home who will tell us the truth, even if it’s painful, because they care about our progress. “Ask them to give you a second score,” says Grant, “how did I come across when you gave me feedback? And then really listen to what they say. And respond by saying thank you. The best way to prove yourself is to show that you’re willing to improve yourself.”

Small as they may seem, encouragements from others like “I really appreciate how invested you seem in learning from my feedback,” or “I can tell you’re really listening to what I’m saying, and that makes me confident that you’ll do better next time,” go a long way during or after potentially upsetting critiques. Earning positive “second scores” isn’t just motivating, it helps you actually believe that your strengths can and will outshine your weaknesses.

Even admissions like “I’m feeling hurt by what you just said,” or “I’m having a lower-level reaction right now,” warrant positive second-score feedback, as they demonstrate self-awareness, honesty, and a willingness to separate instinctual emotions from possible truths.

Ultimately, there’s no way to escape all of our flaws. As Rao says, the least we can do, for ourselves and our colleagues, is to celebrate our ability to see these flaws clearly.