Google's Tight Rope: From Harmony To Dissent And Back Again

There was a time when Silicon Valley was a collection of mostly male coders and engineers, where only rule-breakers need apply. The mere notion of corporate codes of conduct and diversity training was anathema to the tech revolution that practically started as a “boys only” garage band.

Times have changed. Industries grow and mature. Fortunes rise, and fall, as do reputations. And the spotlight of public exposure grows ever more intense. Organization and leadership are necessary to ensure stability. And somewhere along the line, rules are established to guarantee order when companies balloon in size to tens of thousands of employees. The organic mores of yesterday need to be replaced with formal policy and procedure.

Companies, just like people, have to grow up.

When Google computer engineer James Damore fired off his prickly manifesto recently, he alleged that women are less suitable for certain roles in technology than their male counterparts, and took Google to task for its efforts to offset those potential differences through aggressive diversity hiring and programs. 



That the memo irritated a festering wound concerning gender representation in the industry is less curious for leadership scholars like me than how Google managed to create an environment where Damore felt he had the right to share his memo broadly with his colleagues.

Damore wrote: “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.”

Don’t hate the player; hate the game.

The validity of Damore’s claims is incidental to this article. What I’m really curious about is Google’s culture, and its leadership’s response to Damore. Every employee in a company is entitled to their own opinions, but they do not have ownership of the company’s communications avenues to express those opinions. Right?

Is it possible that Google has worked so very hard to break down the barriers in its workplace to unleash creativity and freedom of expression that employees don’t know where they end and their colleagues begin?

Google CEO Sundar Pichai swiftly fired Damore for the 10-page memo, saying it violated Google’s “code of conduct and cross[ed] the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes.” Then he followed up that statement with a blanket endorsement of the importance of expressing dissent.

 “[T]o be clear again, many points raised in the memo—such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all—are important topics,” Pichai noted in his memo to employees.

So, dissent does have limits after all.

Expressing constructive dissent is good practice. But inside any large firm, collegiality facilitates a unified vision and singularity of purpose that lead to collective initiative and innovation. I’m not talking about compliance with mandatory statues. I’m talking about a culture that maybe, just maybe, empowered questionable behavior in the service of the noble aim that all shall be heard.

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

A second question arises. Did Google set the rules up properly, either by allowing people to express opinions or, more pointed, not being thorough enough in their code of conduct to ensure that those with minority or marginalized beliefs have equal access?

None of us are privy to Google’s internal memos. Nor should we be. But I can’t help but wonder if derogatory opinions—explicit or implied—about men would lead to termination. What about a missive dismissive of conservative political beliefs? Would these meet the “harmful” litmus test Pichai cited?

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

If a company encourages open exchange and dissent, setting reasonable conscriptions is a must. But such conscription needs to be universally respectful of all spheres of the spectrum. At that point, though, free expression might be so sufficiently bounded that the company should admit it’s grown up and that it’s time everyone limit the conversation to work.

Google created an organization that tried to blend the personal and the workplace. The company wanted employees to bring their whole selves to work. It was a novel experiment, but this incident may illuminate why bringing your whole self to work may not be appropriate.

Because a little can go a long way, sometimes too long.

This is not the first time that a Silicon Valley giant had to grapple with gender discrimination. It’s an ongoing issue in an industry that retains elements of the all male garage band. All firms, technology ones especially, have an obligation to remain ever vigilant in this respect.  

In a way, what’s unfolded at Google is a microcosm of what’s unfolding in America these days. Where does civil discourse and the First Amendment end? When and where can opinions be posted, and what constitutes “harmful.”  

Corporations are part of society, too.

Google’s informal workplace and its emphasis on employee freedom and individual independence found themselves in conflict with the rules and codes society and companies must put in place to ensure we all can work together in safety and comfort. 

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