It came as a trickle of references on Facebook. A Googler wrote a rant about gender and tech. At first, it blended into the background murmur of people with inflammatory attitudes online. Then, the original text was published, which was shortly followed by a spot-on rebuttal. Then, that trickle of conversation peppering my Facebook feed soon became a tidal wave of response. This Googler’s (James Damore’s) memo deeply affected many of the most talented and experienced women I knew in tech.
Despite all the debate, one question remained outstanding: “what do you do when this happens in your organization?” In other words, how do you deal with the fact that these opinions exist in the workforce, whether hidden or not? How do you prevent harmful opinions/attitudes from acting as an invisible force combatting your ability to provide a good work environment?
Here are concrete actions your organization can take to prevent inflammatory attitudes from brewing under the surface and negatively affecting your workplace.
1/ Make employee mandates speak to inclusion rather than diversity
As a VP of Engineering, I have pored over research on what makes teams successful. Research on this topic unambiguously shows that diverse teams are better if you want superior creativity and innovation. They also take more work to manage and implement because leveraging that potential innovation involves a particular brand of cultivation and guidance toward that goal. This process is non-obvious. As a non-obvious process, asking your team to promote diversity without that understanding can be an unnatural leap of faith.
Asking individuals to be inclusive is a lesser leap because it speaks to a core reality in the modern tech workplace: collaboration. Inclusive environments bring forth more creative ideas from more team members, and better capture the team’s potential in the process of innovation. It doesn’t require an individual to be an expert in organizational management to understand why it’s better for the team to be inclusive. And if they don’t agree, then perhaps they should be in a position where they will never interface with another human. I don’t have room for that at my company, but some do.
What’s more, if you ask an individual to promote diversity without having understood the complexity and mechanics that go into making diversity benefit an organization, they may be counterproductive. They may unwittingly do things that make it harder for teams to work productively, or they may experience cognitive dissonance which resolves itself by leaping to unrelated conclusions - or, in some cases, lashing out. I don’t know for sure if this is what happened with James Damore. Right now it’s my best guess.
Without inclusion, diversity is likely to generate net-negative results. With inclusion, you are in a better place to capture the innovative potential of your organization, whether diverse or not. And by asking employees to be inclusive, you’re not asking them to sign on to an idea whose implementation requires them to become an expert in organizational management.
2/ Make collaboration part of your engineering ladder
If you want any idea to take root in your organization, you have to bake it into the DNA of your daily business. You cannot expect to say “here are the goals” and have people follow them without linking them into your company’s day-to-day behavior or incentive structures.
Given the body of research which shows that teams that collaborate well produce better results, it is easy to demonstrate that collaboration deserves its own space on an engineering ladder. Collaborative ability is an essential part of growth in the engineering discipline rather than any kind of artificial appendage to support diversity.
Adding collaboration skills to your engineering ladder sends the message that collaborating well is not a Star Trek fantasy. It is obtainable, and should be strived for. It makes your gameable system of company rewards yield behavior that helps your company succeed.
Collaborative engineers are the special sauce that makes bad ideas go in the dustbin, and great ones flourish. This includes ideas about tech as well as ideas about people. Try it and see.
3/ Have more diverse engineers kicking ass on your team
Give first-person examples of how people different from the dominant demographic are amazing at their jobs. This is the most compelling and effective way to help people broaden their perspective.
No joke, it is hard to find and hire diverse engineers. This topic could be a blog post or a book all of its own. Here is the nickel version. Recruit broadly. Don’t lower your bar. In fact - raise your bar. Hire the best and don’t underestimate the abilities of the young. Provide training ladders for your most promising junior candidates. Don’t give them reasons to leave.
If you make it clear that you truly value input from diverse contributors, you are more likely to attract them. It’s a long game, and should involve changes in many parts of your business. If you can do it though, you’ve got an advantage.
4/ Create a high-trust environment
In a high-trust environment, people are more willing to listen and change their opinions. They are more willing to state risky propositions, and listen when others disagree.
Many factors generate a high-trust environment. The most critical ones include: transparency, accountability, honesty, helping each other, and making promises and keeping them. There are entire books on this topic, and many benefits beyond the topic under discussion here.
If you want to have any resolution for people who are not good at changing their minds besides firing them, trust is the only option besides brainwashing that will enable you to make any progress.
5/ Invite people to engage those with whom they disagree
Although individuals are under no obligation to entertain inflammatory ideas, the only way we will ever get closer to being on the same page is through listening and discussion. If someone does bring up an idea that others strongly disagree with, engage. And don’t just shoot them down. Listen.
Because these topics can be charged and difficult to discuss, it might make sense to identify someone at your organization who can comfortably and productively engage on the topic when others find it too difficult. As an engineering leader at my company, I take on this role myself. I invite others to engage directly with each other first. If they need help, I am there.
When you do engage, do it in person. The higher the trust in the existing relationship, the better the discussion will go. Here are some examples of how engaging people with inflammatory ideas can lead to a better shared understanding.
- Heineken | Worlds Apart
- How to Win Your Next Political Argument
- Conversations with people who hate me podcast
The more individuals feel they can directly challenge their peers without repercussion, the more likely it is that issues like this will come up sooner and in narrower contexts. Normalizing low-grade conflict enables faster and more efficient resolution than ignoring it. Individuals face the real people affected by their opinions, and contemplate the effects of their actions. This leaves fewer ticking time-bombs to blow up further down the road.
6/ Fire the assholes
If you do all of the above and you still find yourself in a situation where somebody is unwilling to listen to other ideas or value their peers, sure, you can coach them. But if you do not make any immediate progress, fire them. Unless you are a one-person company or truly have an environment where isolated single engineers are more effective than collaborating teams, the negative effects will outweigh the benefits of having them at your company. The longer they remain, the more damage they will do.
In summary, there are actions you can take to mitigate the deleterious effects of inflammatory attitudes at your company.
In order to make it possible for teams to collaborate well and do better at work, the groundwork needs to be laid at the company scope and reinforced along with your company’s other values. If it is clear that collaboration is the expectation, not the exception, employees are more likely to hold themselves to that standard - and self-correct when needed. Then, when a person does raise the question of whether a particular hypothesis of diversity initiatives is worth considering, it is easier to say “Let’s talk about it.” And really mean it. And maybe then you can make progress toward resolution.
These are some ways to cultivate an organization that can tolerate (and embrace) diverse perspectives without harmful conflict. What are yours?