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At Humanise.AI we’re massive fans of Ray Dalio. In particular, his principle of Open-Mindedness is one that we strive hard to live up to.

“True open-mindedness… is a process of being intensely worried about being wrong and asking questions instead of defending a position. It demands that you get over your ego-driven desire to have whatever answer you happen to have in your head be right.” — Ray Dalio

Let me quote that last bit again, because it’s so important:

Our egos make us think that our ideas be correct. But unless we’ve tested those ideas with others, there’s a strong possibility that our lack of perspective has tricked us. Too often, our egos stop us from seeing the truth. Open-mindedness is our saviour.

But it’s not always easy. Even the best of us sometimes get into a mental rut and forget to seek or listen to other perspectives. And that’s a problem, because if we don’t open our minds to other ideas, we’re at risk of making the wrong decisions.

Early in my career, I was invited by my boss to support her in attending a board meeting of a public company. The meeting was boisterous, full of people several pay grades above myself and all with strong egos. I was a little intimidated. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, someone talked over me. After a while the Managing Director stopped the meeting, looked at me, and said:

The words stick in my mind. They’re a perfect example of a leader stopping stronger characters and actively seeking out the opinions of quieter people. The loudness of a person’s voice implies nothing about the contribution they can make to a debate. Robin Phipps, I salute you.

Part of a leader’s job is to balance input from amongst the team. A leader needs to foster an environment that supports people speaking up. And a truly open-mined culture is one that actively questions and seeks out opinions, rather than just evaluating what is presented. Because of this, an open-minded leader needs to be strongly inquisitive.

As we’ve seen with my small annecdote, extraverts can sometimes dominate debates and restrict open-mindedness. But it’s a mistake to lay the blame at the door of extraverts. Intraverts can be just as guilty. Sometimes quiet people can present ideas as a full-gone-conclusion and belittle questions by relying on a false sense of technical superiority. Both styles are dangerous, because they seek to prevent debate. It’s not about extraverts or intraverts. We’re all a potential problem – extravert, intravert and everything inbetween.

A leaders job is to recognise these destructive dynamics when they emerge and actively manage them. A truly open-minded leader is one that identifies and seeks to prevent behaviours that undermine the goal of open-mindedness — wherever they may come from.

We wrote open-mindedness into our culture as a way of emphasising how much importance we ascribe to it. That helped, because it gave us a reference point to remind ourselves periodically of the values we aspire to. Coming back to our culture and reminding ourselves that open-mindedness is important helps to keep us on the right path. I strongly believe that writing these things down helps to institutionalise them and emphasise their reasoning.

But we’ve also found that continually mentioning open-mindedness in meetings helps further, by making it an established part of the day-to-day culture. We even make it a joke — where we challenge each other “are you being open-minded here?” with a smile and a laugh. This approach prevents grand-standing and ensures that open-mindedness is a tool we can use to take anyone off of their high horse (including me), when we lose perspective or when our egos take over. We do it with smiles and laughs, because they are also part of our culture. It helps.

Quoting open-mindedness on a regular basis makes it less personal or judgemental. After all, if we’re being told to be open-minded on a daily basis, it feels less “pointy-fingered” when it’s used in a more serious way.

I’m delighted that we’ve established a culture that challenges us all when we lose perspective, or when our egos take control. And I’m even more happy that we’ve found a way of doing it that’s neither judgemental nor undermining, but rather aspirational and supportive.

We may not be perfect, but we aspire to be better. As the lyrics to South Pacific go:

I wrote this post because yesterday I had a call from someone we’d worked with us, who was bringing us an opportunity — specifically because she felt that our culture was something that would be a fit. It was great to see both that our cultural difference was obvious (she commented how different we were from some other startups she had worked with — and with whom she would not work with again) and that its existence has brought tangible business value. I continue to believe that working in this way, striving to build something better, will help us in our quest.

If you come to work at Humanise.AI, you need to be comfortable with the ideas of being open-minded, of being challenged about not being open-minded, and with debating your ideas without defending them to the death. You need to check your ego at the door. It’s not just what you know, but also how you behave. We’re proud that that’s who we are and we believe it makes us stronger.

Thank you, Ray Dalio, for helping us to see the light.

Eclectic tastes, amateur at most things. Learning how to build a new startup. Former CTO for IBM Watson Europe.

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