Basecamp, a productivity software maker, said that it’s banning employees from “societal and political discussions” on internal workplace tools. That led to almost half of the small team walking out.
Some months back, Coinbase, a crypto startup also set a no-politics-at-work policy. They too faced some turbulence among employees. Should some topics be banned from the workplace? Is it harder for startups to deal with these issues? Is there a playbook to follow?
My AHA moment came from an experience I had. You may have felt that too. I describe it here.
Three reasons why leaders must engage with tricky questions
Are employees being ungrateful when they want the perks of one company and the salary of another and the challenge of a third firm? Why is it happening today? I offer three reasons why shutting off debate is a bad idea.
1. Handling diversity is a leaders job
A business may start off with two friends in a garage, but as the organisation grows, the talent pool grows beyond the circle of friends and known people. Diverse talent pools drive innovation. Diverse groups will have diverse points of view on every subject.
Shutting off conversations puts out a big warning sign that asking questions is not appreciated. It is the role of the leader to foster curiosity by handling questions. Even business terms that are used every day need to explained.
For example, L’Oreal’s mission is, “Offering all women and men worldwide the best of cosmetics innovation in terms of quality, efficacy, and safety.” The leaders explain through conversations what “quality”, “safety” etc mean, in their business context. Else it is unlikely to see consistent implementation. Every word has a literal meaning and a then there is a cultural context that shapes the meaning. Finally, the individual’s own world view filters how the word is understood.
2. Customers and employees are neighbours
Organisations can no longer pretend to shy away from taking a stand on societal issues. They draw their talent pool from the society and sell their products and service to society. They contribute to the problems and solutions that we live with. Businesses make contributions to political parties and continue to influence lawmakers through lobbyists. Businesses put social campaigns to boost sales, so it is fair to expect employees to raise social issues.
All societal changes begin with questions. Every innovation is triggered by a question that someone asks. Every founder discovers that saying, “We are changing the world” can inspire people. They need to begin implementing that in the workplace.
3. Competing on emotions
Maslow’s need hierarchy tells us that once the physiological needs like food, shelter etc are met, we focus on our affiliation needs. We focus on relationships that make us feel loved. We gravitate towards people who make us feel esteemed.
We are in the era where emotions and relationships will drive the workplace. We can no longer say, “Leave your emotions at home when you leave for the office.” The office has moved in to our home. The cognitive tasks are being done by algorithms and machines. It is the emotionally complex tasks where humans can outsmart machines.
We need people who experience emotions
Leaders have to build trust. They must inspire. The leader must have the humility to acknowledge vulnerability. They must have the confidence to take big bets. These are all emotions we expect of the leaders.
When hiring talent, we want people who are passionate. Organisations feel thrilled when they have an engaged employee base. The organisation’s mission and values create differentiators. While everyone ought to be doing what they paid to do, we need managers to motivate the teams and make them resilient …
Manage the polarities and contradictions
Emotions need to be balanced. Over confident and pompous leaders are painful to work with. So are under-confident leaders. Taking a huge risk could sink the company. Not taking a risk could also stop the company from adopting new ideas. A leader who only speaks is missing the chance to listen. The leader who is only listening will miss a chance to shape the agenda by explaining their decision. Navigating emotionally complex challenges can really test the mettle of the person in charge.
Having a diverse team is a business necessity. Diversity can be about gender, race, ethnicity (all the visible and tangible differences) but can be more complex as we navigate invisible differences eg “the curse of expertise“, biases and cultural filters. Founding team members of startups often leave when they feel “it no longer feels like the team I joined”.
What should organisations do?
- Build a strong culture: Navigating these complex human emotions requires creating strong cultural pillars. It needs more than an offsite to come up with the values, vision and mission of the business. It needs to be lived everyday by the leadership team. It needs to be debated and understood by everyone. Before you put a value like Integrity or Teamwork as your company value, ask if you would be willing to fire someone (whose continuity is critical to the business) if they were found guilty of flouting the value?
- Have a strong HR leader from day 1: Most founder’s believe that they can manage HR. This is often their biggest blind spot. Having a strong HR team is essential to translate the values into policies and processes from hire to separation. Build everyday opportunities for people to have conversations with colleagues. Ability to have no-holds barred conversations build psychological safety. It helps people take risks – an essential precondition of innovation. Fixing culture after a disaster is a more expensive remedy. Believe me, I have seen too many of these.
- You need Corporate Communication capability: When you take a stand that is likely to be unpopular, the choice of words, timing, length of the communication, the platform, the frequency, the visuals used, the scripting of the responses to the stakeholders etc needs someone trained in handling such a situation. Communication is a super specialised area and being a brilliant scientist does not automatically mean the person is a skilled communicator.
- Protect the whistleblowers: Not listening to the early stage complaints about the toxic culture of Uber led to Susan Fowler taking it public. According to Fortune magazine, “As U.S. corporations have grown more powerful in the past half-century, corporate whistleblowing has become more common, precipitating many a corporate scandal. Around 40% of fraud schemes are unearthed through tips, the bulk of which come from employees.”
- Train the Managers in Relationship Building Skills: Managers have to be taught that getting to know their team members does not mean remembering everyone’s birthday (although that helps). It is often about knowing how the work that they do shapes their identity. Esther Perel, describes it as the identity economy.
To retain talented employees, companies will need to provide growth opportunities and structures that help colleagues reconcile a series of seemingly conflicting needs: money and meaning, autonomy and belonging, flexibility and stability.
We have seen the era of the Knowledge Worker. Expect now to see the Era of the Relationship Worker.