The Conversation Guide to Business | The Economist

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REED HASTINGS A builds the culture of Netflix around it. Ray Dalio made it a founding principle at Bridgewater, a successful investment fund. “Radical candor” is the idea that honesty is the best way to run a business: no one dances around the truth, and faster feedback improves performance.

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Most companies rely on a messier doctrine. People rarely say what they mean, but hope their meaning is clear nonetheless. Think of Britain, but with paychecks. To navigate this type of workplace, you need a phrasebook.

“I hear you”

Apparent meaning: you are making a legitimate argument
Real meaning: be quiet

“Let’s discuss it offline”

Apparent meaning: we shouldn’t waste other people’s precious time
Real meaning: let’s never talk about it again (see also: “Put a pin inside”)

“We should all learn to walk in other people’s shoes”

Apparent meaning: shared understanding leads to better results
Real meaning: I need you to know my job is hell

“I’m just curious…”

Apparent meaning: I’d like to know why you think …
Actual meaning: … because it doesn’t make sense to someone else

“It’s great to have started this conversation”

Apparent meaning: we have raised an important issue here
Real meaning: we made absolutely no progress

“I wanted to keep you posted”

Apparent meaning: I am informing you of something minor
Real meaning: I should have told you a few weeks ago

“Do you have five minutes?” “

Apparent meaning: I have something trivial to say
Real meaning: you are in a difficult situation

“Let’s handle this asynchronously”

Apparent meaning: we will each work on this task at our own pace
Real meaning: I have to go to my Pilates class now

“It’s on the product roadmap”

Apparent meaning: it will be done soon
Real meaning: it won’t be done anytime soon

“We are moving to an agile framework”

Apparent meaning: we will work iteratively in response to user feedback
Real meaning: we literally plan to go around in circles

“It’s a legacy technology stack”

Apparent meaning: it’s a rat’s nest of ancient and incompatible systems
Real meaning: none of this is our fault

“We are a platform company”

Apparent meaning: we provide an ecosystem in which others can interact
Real meaning: suppose we are a tech company and see what happens with our assessment (see also: “as a service”, “network effects” and “flywheels”)

“We are planning the metaverse”

Apparent meaning: we are ready for a shared and immersive digital world
Real meaning: Ooh, look! A moving train! (see also: “Web3”)

“Bring your whole being to work”

Apparent meaning: be genuine and don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability
Real meaning: but not those pieces of yourself, obviously

In a radical franchise world, there would be less need to translate. Most managers and colleagues might indeed be better able to give unvarnished comments. Some words and expressions are so opaque that they absorb all the visible meaning.

But there is a lot to be said for coded communication. Work is where people learn to manage social interactions, not to define them outside of existence. Transparency does not necessarily cross borders well. And perpetual brutality is exhausted; humans are constantly refining and massaging the messages they send in order to avoid open conflict. Radical franchising is associated with businesses that pay very well. Perhaps this is because this approach leads to greater success. Maybe it’s because otherwise most people couldn’t stand it.

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This article first appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “The Conversation Guide to Business”


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