GOOGLE AND THE SIMPLE NARRATIVE
Todd Dewett | August 21, 2017
I’ve been a big fan of Google for a long time. They get so much right, though, like all organizations, they are imperfect. There are many colorful commentaries flooding the net about the recent diversity debacle, but nearly all feel terribly incomplete. I believe this aspect of the Google issue is very similar to many other events dominating the news. So for the sake of promoting critical thinking, here’s my take.
In so many ways, Google is all about learning. They try new things in the name of learning and innovation like few ever have. That’s precisely why the CEO’s reaction surprised me. It was a bit too rash. I believe it was a wasted learning moment.
What did this wannabe philosopher-employee actually do? He went all Jerry Maguire and dropped a mission statement. Like Jerry’s work, his effort was met with a harsh response.
Was his work stupid? Of course. Full of hyperbole? Immature? Yes. It was authoritative with no real expertise. Utter bloviating. Though I don’t think he should have been fired, blow-back or a reprimand of some type should have been expected.
However, the most unfortunate aspect of the entire situation is watching people cling to such simple views and interpretations. The author did it. The CEO did it. A million pundits and trolls online have done it. It’s the model that often dominates the media. One side of the story is wholly sufficient.
I call it the simple narrative. Never believe the simple narrative.
In this case the narrative for each side is clear. Those on Jerry’s side suggest that the powers that be are leftist PC madmen. Those supporting the firing maintain that Jerry is a sexist simpleton who loathes diversity. In reality, these statements are somewhat true and somewhat false, yet this basic fact seems to elude observers.
We know who wrote the memo and we know how the CEO reacted. We don’t know as much about why these things happened. It is important to note that most observers and commentators (including this one) don’t work at Google. However, we can make educated guesses. I assume the quick decision to fire the employee was perceived as an expedient way to stop the bad PR and an opportunity to look decisive on an important issue.
The actual result is that the situation is likely worse at Google now and the CEO very likely hurt his reputation instead of building it.
Every time you listen to the simple narrative, you lose. You have chosen not to create a learning moment. This incident is a great reminder that every story has multiple sides and that every outcome is multi-determined (there are many variables at play, not simply one that explains everything).
So what should have happened? I’m not sure any given situation has a perfect solution, though it’s easy in this case to imagine a more productive path forward. My suggestion would be to first meet with the author and discuss the motivation for his manifesto moment.
One or two relevant people from the chain of command / human resources will suffice, and the CEO should not be present. Listen openly. Offer a legitimate critique – note good points that were made, mention rules or norms that may have been violated, values not upheld. Do not begin by being critical. Mr. Covey was right to remind us – seek first to understand!
Deliver your formal response to the employee. Honestly, to avoid being rash, that decision should be made after the meeting just described. Following that conversation, a reasonable response might include any of the following:
Another informal talk or two. If nothing else this validates that voice is encouraged. I’m not thinking about the author, I’m thinking about everyone else in the organization. Everyone at Google learned a lot the other day about saying something not approved by the majority.
A formal letter concerning work performance. Since communication is a vital aspect of work performance, a formal letter for the personnel file would be terribly useful in helping anyone think more critically about how they communicate. That is to say, it would help them understand that behaviors have consequences. A similar idea is to address the formal comment as part of the person’s next regularly scheduled performance evaluation.
Let them suffer the natural consequences. This might mean strained relationships, loss of opportunities, or many difficult conversations. Firing in this case feels too much like censorship. However, people have a right to judge the author and that will likely leave decision makers feeling less inclined to continue investing in the person’s development.
Having taken a deep dive with the person to promote mutual understanding and to provide clarity about future behavioral expectations, it’s now time to go public. Hold a town hall. Prove you are more than hot air by facilitating an open discussion of the issue. Anything less, and you are not walking the talk about your awesome organizational culture.
Next, encourage mentors in your mentoring programs to address this issue through dialogue. Remind them of the fallacy of the simple narrative and encourage open and respectful conversation. You might also consider adding these topics to your employee engagement survey. The issues related to diversity include our relevant values, goals, training, and programs. Finally, as top leaders continue to engage informal conversations with people down the chain, this topic should be front and center.
Clearly the author of the manifesto said some offensive things (e.g., the left is biased due to compassion for the weak). He also said a few logical things (e.g., men and women are different and not all achievement gaps are easily explained by bad behavior).
From a critical thinking perspective, my fear is that when people hear one aspect of an argument that does not jive with their beliefs, they tune out immediately and wholly disavow their opposition. This tendency is often exacerbated by news outlets all too happy to rely on simple narratives.
This general pattern permeates most public discussion. On immigration you either support the wall and strong deportation efforts, or you support open borders and citizenship. The many creative possibilities in the middle are never even addressed. Capitalism: you are pro-business, freedom-loving, and anti-labor; or you are anti-business, socialist, and pro-union. No other nuances are even addressed. The list of topics discussed in this fashion is never-ending. Red state or blue state – take your pick!
It’s not clear yet that Google has learned from this incident. As a fan, I hope they do. I hope Jerry does as well. Maybe his next manifesto will be more factually accurate. Or, maybe he’ll grow enough to skip the manifesto and just start more meaningful conversations in pursuit of something other than the simple narrative.