TWO months ago, the name Ray Dalio was largely unknown outside the world of the US hedge fund managers – just another billionaire money man (he’s actually worth $US4 billion, according to Forbes) quietly plying his trade in leafy Greenwich, Connecticut.
But that all changed when a copy of the unofficial handbook Dalio penned for fellow employees at his company Bridgewater was leaked to US gossip site Dealbreaker.
The tome, simply entitled Principles, sets out over 83 pages a staggering 296 principles for how Bridgewater employees should work, act and think.
It is an amazing document and well worth studying for anyone who wants to get an insight into how the manager of the world’s largest hedge fund actually thinks and acts.
Dalio’s document has received a lot of attention in recent weeks for principle 11, which takes aim at the perennial office problem of gossip.
“Never say anything about a person you wouldn’t say to him directly. If you do, you’re a slimy weasel. Badmouthing people behind their backs shows a serious lack of integrity. It doesn’t yield any beneficial change and it subverts both the people you are badmouthing and the environment as a whole. Next to being dishonest, it is the worst thing you can do at Bridgewater.”
On its own, the principle sounds like strong, stirring and very compassionate stuff. But it only tells part of the story of how Bridgewater is run.
This principle is just part of Dalio’s quest to become a “hyper-realist”. In chapter one (entitled “My Most Fundamental Principles”) he explains that this trait gives him a “non-traditional sense of good and bad” and a very different view of the way the world works.
“For example, when a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is that good or evil? At face value, that might not be “good” because it seems cruel, and the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently “cruel” behaviour exists throughout the animal kingdom,” Dalio writes.
“Like death itself, it is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life. It is good for both the hyenas who are operating in their self-interest and the interest of the greater system, including those of the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution (ie. the natural process of improvement). In fact, if you changed anything about the way that dynamic works, the overall outcome would be worse.”
If it sounds brutal, it’s because Dalio’s view of life is.
While the principles of truth and honesty lie at the centre of the document – "There is nothing to fear from truth... Being truthful is essential to being an independent thinker and obtaining greater understanding of what is right" – the way this translates into instructions for management is very different to the sort of touchy-feely leadership style many companies espouse.
Managers are also encouraged to “diagnose mistakes” and personalise them by criticising the staff member responsible by name (principle 25). “A common mistake is to depersonalise the mistake, saying “we didn’t handle this well” rather than “Harry didn’t handle this well,” Dalio writes.
Dishonesty is not to be tolerated, and dishonest people who claim to have changed their ways can’t be trusted (principle 19).
Dalio exhorts managers to create a “believability” matrix for each staff member (principle 44) that could be monitored by the creation of “baseball cards” that record a worker’s credentials, successes and failures (principle 158).
“By believability, I mean the probability that a person’s view will be right. While we can never know this precisely, we can roughly assess it according to the quality of a person’s reasoning and/or track record.”
Principle 139 explains why employees must be “probed” in the open as much as possible to ensure transparency: “That will help to assure the quality of the probing (because others can make their own assessments), and it will reinforce the culture of transparency and freedom to find truth.”
And while many leaders try to promote the idea that every staff member has a valuable opinion to share, Dalio takes a different approach (principle 42).
“Almost everyone has an opinion, but they’re not all equally valuable. Many are worthless or even harmful. So it is not logical to treat them as equally valuable. For example, the views of people without any track records or experience are not equal to the views of people with great track records and experience. Treating them equally is more likely to undermine getting at the truth than facilitate it.”
Of course, what makes Dalio’s principles so fascinating is that his opinion counts as much as anyone in the competitive world of hedge funds.
Since starting Bridgewater Associates out of an extra bedroom in his New York apartment in 1975, Dalio has turned the company into a money-making machine that now manages $US75 billion. According to a recent profile in the Wall Street Journal, his Pure Alpha fund has returned an average of about 13% annually over the past 19 years, and even posted a 14% return in 2008, when 70% of hedge funds lost money.
The firm’s strategy is very different from many other hedge funds. While many investors try to pick big winners (finding undervalued companies that suddenly jump in value), Bridgewater concentrates on fixed interest and currency markets, grinding out steady if not always spectacular gains. The firm is known for producing huge amounts of research, and taking money from institutional investors rather than wealthy individuals.
Perhaps what makes Dalio’s controversial principles so interesting is that the ideas that underpin his philosophy – honesty, transparency, accountability, ethics – are the very things that most companies like to say are at the core of their values.
But Dalio’s “hyper-reality” takes everything that step further. For example, there seems to be very little sensitivity to the different emotional states of staff and the way they might take criticism and need praise.
While principle 114 directs managers to “sincerely care about the people who work for you” it quickly goes on to say that demonstrating this shouldn’t be top of your to-do list.
“While it’s also desirable to convey these feelings, having them is more important.”
Dalio’s language is brutal and some of the “tools” he recommends that managers use are extreme.
For example, principle 14 states that almost all meetings should be taped and be made available for distribution to other staff members to “enhance transparency and facilitate information gathering. Allowing people to listen directly to what was said lets them form their own views and greatly enhances accuracy and the pursuit of truth.”
According to an anonymous worker quoted in Dealbreaker’s original post on Dalio’s principles, nothing is off limits to the recording machines.
“Often if a manager or Ray thinks something is worth educational value they will email out a meeting recording company wide, these usually involve the individual getting shredded publicly for the greater good of the company.”
One example cited was the “shredding” of the company’s chief operating officer in front of the management committee, which was then distributed.
In a response to the post, Dalio did not deny the allegation.
“Besides believing radical truth, I believe in radical transparency. I believe that making just about everything open for people to see fosters understanding and minimises office politics.”
Rather than hide following the leaking of Principles, Dalio has gone to the trouble of releasing the document to the world.
While he concedes that Bridgewater is “not for everyone” he has not backed away from his philosophies one bit.
“Bridgewater is a very unusual and controversial place because it really does operate the way that I describe in my principles. Because it is very unusual, we know that many people will criticise it, while others will love it. That’s okay... Those who value it should stay or argue for why it should change, while those who dislike it should leave. And everyone should respect our right to be this way.”
Dalio also urges people to make their own mind up about Bridgewater by reading his handbook.
It’s a fair call. After all, there is nothing to fear from the truth.
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