Ray Dalio on the Upside of Negative Feedback

Our recent podcast “When Is a Negative a Positive?” is about the productive use of feedback. It argues that, while positive feedback has its place, especially for beginners, it is negative feedback that drives improvement.

This belief is firmly held by Ray Dalio, the founder of the Bridgewater Associates, which has been called (in a fine New Yorker profile by John Cassidy) “the world’s richest and strangest hedge fund.” Bridgewater’s “principles” argue for constant, ruthless feedback, and Dalio attributes Bridgewater’s success to this culture.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with Dalio that, unfortunately, didn’t make it into our podcast:

“Learning about what you’re doing wrong and your mistakes is so much more productive to making improvement because you develop a means for dealing with that — learning about what you’re doing right.”

“Nobody knows what others are doing wrong. It’s a discovery process. So if I think you’re doing something wrong, I convey that to you in a forthright way. You’re an equal partner in that. But the people around us all then are partners in that. And we go through a process of experimenting, because the same things come up over, and over, and over again. So if you’re doing something wrong, it’s going to come up over and over and over again. And pretty soon, when you’re paying attention to it, it then becomes more apparent. So there’s really very little disagreement concerning each person’s strengths and weaknesses. And then of course, everybody sees that converted into productivity, because once they embrace the standing of what they’re doing wrong and have a strategy to not let that stand in their way — to create a compensating mechanism — it’s no longer a barrier to their effectiveness. …

That can happen in one of two ways. Maybe, to some extent, they learn themselves to adapt — they develop skill. Or they change the nature of their responsibilities in a way that plays to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Maybe they work with somebody who has a compensating strength or weakness.  Putting together a group of people who know what their strengths and weaknesses are and create a complementary team so that they can work well together and then also complement each other — (that is) tremendously productive.”

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  1. Djeef says:

    Professional software engineers (theoretically) engage in regular Code Reviews where software code written for new features is reviewed by team members. The goal of this review is partly to make sure the team is informed about the new code but mostly to make sure there aren’t any mistakes in it. This is a good example of “good” negative feedback. It’s a chance to discuss your design methodologies and look for ways to improve.

    In a healthy work environment comments would tend to be more like, “I think it’d be good to abstract these methods into a super class,” or “If you used the decorator pattern here we’d be able to reuse this for the new feature we have to put in next month.” These qualify as what your research characterized as “negative” but are constructive, focused and not personal. This process is also different from what you engaged in with Kai because it’s a formalized process that the participants expect to be involved in. The script for the Freakonomics episode demonstrated blind-siding Kai with the comments.

    Architecture students and to some degree professional architects engage in similar review of project drawings.

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  2. Steve Cebalt says:

    In personal pursuits like golf, triathalons, weightlifting, etc., we tend to be very self-critical, even when no one will know if you were 30 seconds off your pace for your daily treadmill session, but you’ll beat yourself up for it.

    We’re no so keen on accepting critism from others. But it is the only feedback that makes you better. I had two bosses: One hated confrontation and negativity; great fun to work for but taught me nothing. Another boss was nitpicky and critical about the strangest things. But he pointed out so many blind spots that I never knew I had. I learned more from him than from any other experience, and I respect him much more than the “nice guy” boss.

    What good is positive feedback? It does no harm, but…it’s like peeing your pants — it makes you feel all warm for a minute but accomplishes nothing.

    The “big picture lesson that he taught me: Criticism shows that the boss cares; listen and heed it; they are going out of the comfort zone to help you improve. They are doing you a huge favor.

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