Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Leadership in Real Time and for the Long Term

I define leadership as the mobilization of people and their resources toward a common goal. At Google, I presume that an example of that goal is to deliver the best user experience in Internet search and a growing area of online activities (like this blog's platform), so that the company can sell the users' attention to advertisers and generate profits. Google has, for the last two decades, outperformed its competitors, in my view because it has had a business model and culture that attracts talented people and encourages them to innovate on behalf of the company. (Great colleges and universities excel in the same way.)

I value the services Google provides and so it is unfortunate to see how poorly its leadership, specifically CEO Sundar Pichai, has responded to the circulation of a memo written by employee James Damore, Google's Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion. Pichai's response was twofold: first, circulating this e-mail to all employees, and second, firing Damore within days of the memo going viral.

Pichai's response is, in my view, a failure of leadership. The leader has to distinguish what is a short term problem that must be addressed immediately and what is a longer term challenge or opportunity that can be taken up with more patience and deliberation. He didn't do this very well. Here's what I would have recommended that he do in his communication with employees:

1. Immediately, clarify what was presented (and what wasn't) in the memo

In his e-mail, Pichai had the opportunity to identify the central argument in the memo and distinguish it from the more salacious claims about it that arose as it went viral. Instead, he does the opposite, stating that the memo crosses the line "by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace." Damore explicitly does not do this. He provides this figure to illustrate his point:

The relevance of the figure is that Damore states in the bottom panel that he doesn't endorse stereotyping people. If that's not obvious from the figure, then it should be obvious from the paragraph in the memo immediately preceding it:

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Damore is not saying that the tech industry is structured to be equally accessible to men and women. He is saying that even if it were, equal representation would not necessarily obtain and should therefore be reconsidered as the standard. Contrary to what Pichai writes in his e-mail, Damore does not "suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work." That would require that Google have different hiring standards for men and women. If the standards are the same, then everyone working at Google has enough of the relevant traits to be suited for that work.

In my view, Pichai compounded the widespread misunderstandings of what was presented in the memo at the precise moment when he should have been clarifying them.

2. Immediately, set grownup expectations for how to behave as a co-worker when you find something offensive.

On two occasions in the memo, Pichai uses the phrase, that something is "not OK." His language is reminiscent of what day care workers say to toddlers who have gone a bit past their scheduled nap time and are acting out. Could we please stop infantilizing young adults? The simple rule for engaging with colleagues in a forum like the one to which Damore posted his ideas should be that if you are offended by something, give the author the benefit of the doubt that the offense was unintended. Ask for clarification of the offending statements to see if there is a less offensive way of presenting them. Challenge the offensive claim with evidence to the contrary. Do not mischaracterize or oversimplify the author's claims and then get outraged over your own errors of understanding. (For some absurd examples, see several of the quotes in this Washington Post column.)

I work in an industry and a profession that operates like such a forum, and I have seldom regretted following this simple rule. Think of how much better our workplaces would be if it were more widely followed. As CEO of one of the most important companies in the world, Pichai should be encouraging its adoption rather than accommodating its opposite.

3. Set an aspirational goal for the longer term

Pichai does acknowledge that "many points raised in the memo ... are important topics," but he gives no indication of any changes that will occur at Google in light of them. That's a mistake.  The memo makes assertions of fact and assertions of causality. It provides some evidence to support those assertions, but it doesn't presume to be comprehensive in doing so. Google should rectify that. Commission a panel of distinguished outside experts to report on the best evidence possible on whether the assertions are true or not. Set a deadline of a few months and then promise a webinar or similar venue for the panel to present its findings. Allow time for employees to formulate and act on their best response to the memo, rather than their first response to the memo.

Failure to do this undermines Pichai's claim that "People must feel free to express dissent." He compounds this problem by firing Damore. Termination is the harshest sanction that could be imposed. A lesser sanction, like a period of probation, would not preclude a termination at a later time if warranted.

The irony here is that since Google owns YouTube, it already has the benefit of much of that expertise. See, for example, this video, in which Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke debate some of the evidence on gender differences in the wake of the remarks that Larry Summers made at an NBER conference in 2005. The response to those remarks, which bears some similarity to the response to the Google memo, ultimately led to him resigning the presidency of Harvard about a year later. (I blogged about that episode here and here.) 

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