It has to be ingrained in your culture that to silently disagree is to be disloyal to the organization.

— Reed Hastings

Joanna: Let’s start off with the “big” question. How do you balance “truth” with selling a vision? How is “truth” embedded in your team culture? And, are there limits?

Reed: Selling a vision and telling the truth can and should work together. It’s like the Stockdale paradox where you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

I think about some of the early days, when I would have to confront the hard truth about our present realities, but tell a confident story about where we could get to in the next three years. Teams will see through fake optimism. It may work once, but not over time.

I believe that it’s always better to be direct. You have to be straightforward with your team:

“We are in a tough spot. I am not sure how we will get out of it. But I am confident that as a team we will figure out the solution. I have high confidence that we are creating something of value.”

Joanna: So in a similar vein, how does a CEO get to the truth with their team? Is it even possible? How do they know that they are getting the reality, not just what their team thinks they want to hear?

Reed: Many people leave out inconvenient facts, so your organization has to develop a reputation for candor––in small ways, each and every day.

I’ll give you an example. There was this one day where I woke up and started working from my bed and I totally lost track of time. I realized that I had to video into a meeting with my board. So I chose to dial in versus being on video. The meeting was fine, relatively uneventful, and I technically “got away with it,” but I sent a note afterward to the board explaining honestly what happened, why I was off video. That’s such a small example in the grand scheme of things, but moments like this over time really add up and either build or erode trust.

Another way to think about it is when managers have to ask 20 questions to get to a specific answer. That’s a big sign that you don’t have candor in your organization.

Joanna: So how can a leader ingrain this in their company over time?

Reed: Simply put, you should over-communicate bad news. It sets a clear bar on telling the truth for the entire company because people know that you are never trying to hide or obfuscate.

When I think about truth in an organization, yes, it starts with bringing my authentic whole self to my work, but while feeling comfortable about one’s identity in the workplace is great and empowering, a workplace cannot be the place where every thought needs to come out at all times. Sharing every point of view and every idea is actually rarely productive. It is about bringing your full “professional” self to work. It’s about speaking up on things that are useful and productive to the work. Organizations and individuals need to have clarity on their professional self.

In order to get to the truth in the day-to-day work, it has to be ingrained in your culture that to silently disagree is to be disloyal to the organization. To ensure this happens at Netflix, we “farm for dissent” by always asking, “Who disagrees and why?”

Lastly, you also have to have managers that are comfortable making decisions without total consensus. That balance between everyone feeling heard yet ultimately having a decision maker is oftentimes the biggest hurdle to accomplishing your goals.

Joanna: So in cultivating that “professional self,” how do you build a culture that is less political? Because oftentimes people confuse the “professional self” with posturing or faking.

Reed: Well first, you need to define “politics,” which in a way is about spinning information. We admire people who are good at this in actual politics. They are great at stating something that may not be supported by the truth or facts. However, this is not what we want in the professional world. It is much more efficient for an organization if everybody is willing to be honest. It is about establishing trust. Mutual trust. You have to say what you mean, always.

Joanna: So how did you learn to be so straightforward with your teams?

Reed: Back at Pure Software I saw the effectiveness of being straightforward. I would cite examples of other companies that had gotten through tough times and share how we were going to do the same. I got much more clarity as a leader to embrace truth as I got more aligned with my own values, and the experience of getting through highs and lows gave me more confidence.

Also, I was eventually able to let go of needing to be liked. I realized that success and leadership were more about being effective and considerate. This was definitely not something I embraced even back in college. It is something that I have learned over time. So my advice to those starting out would be to embrace this notion sooner rather than later.

We asked all our contributors and the cast at West the following question, “A world where everyone tells the truth is.”

Here’s what Reed had to say…A (general) world where everyone tells the truth is “one that will get you killed.”
A (professional) world where everyone tells the truth is “a learning organization.”

Head over to Article 10 for the rest.