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The business phrasebook

by Mikael Harris
The business phrasebook

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

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

“I hear you”

Ostensible meaning: You’re making a legitimate point
Actual meaning: Be quiet

“Let’s discuss this offline”

Ostensible meaning: We shouldn’t waste other people’s valuable time
Actual meaning: Let’s never speak of this again (see also: “Let’s put a pin in it”)

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

Ostensible meaning: Shared understanding results in better outcomes
Actual meaning: I need you to know that my job is a living hell

“I’m just curious…”

Ostensible meaning: I’d like to know why you think that…
Actual meaning: …because it makes no sense to anyone else

“It’s great to have started this conversation”

Ostensible meaning: We’ve raised an important issue here
Actual meaning: We’ve made absolutely no progress

“I wanted to keep you in the loop”

Ostensible meaning: I am informing you of something minor
Actual meaning: I should have told you this weeks ago

“Do you have five minutes?”

Ostensible meaning: I have something trivial to say
Actual meaning: You are in deep, deep trouble

“Let’s handle this asynchronously”

Ostensible meaning: We’ll each work on this task in our own time
Actual meaning: I have to go to my Pilates class now

“It’s on the product roadmap”

Ostensible meaning: It’ll be done soon
Actual meaning: It won’t be done soon

“We’re moving to an agile framework”

Ostensible meaning: We will work iteratively in response to user feedback
Actual meaning: We’re literally planning to go round in circles

“It’s a legacy tech stack”

Ostensible meaning: It’s a rat’s nest of old and incompatible systems
Actual meaning: None of this is our fault

“We are a platform business”

Ostensible meaning: We provide an ecosystem in which others can interact
Actual meaning: Let’s pretend we are a tech firm and see what happens to our valuation (see also: “as a service”, “network effects” and “flywheels”)

“We are planning for the metaverse”

Ostensible meaning: We are ready for a shared, immersive digital world
Actual meaning: Ooh, look! A bandwagon! (see also: “Web3”)

“Bring your whole selves to work”

Ostensible meaning: Be authentic and don’t be afraid to show vulnerability
Actual meaning: But not those bits of your whole self, obviously

In a world of radical candour, there would be less need for translating. Most managers and colleagues could indeed be better at giving unvarnished feedback. Some words and phrases are so opaque they absorb all visible meaning.

But there is an awful lot to be said for coded communication. Work is where people learn to manage social interactions, not define them out of existence. Transparency doesn’t necessarily travel well across borders. And perpetual bluntness is draining; humans constantly finesse and massage the messages they send in order to avoid open conflict. Radical candour is associated with firms that pay very well. That may be because this approach leads to greater success. It may be because otherwise most people wouldn’t put up with it.

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “The business phrasebook”

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