Leadership Lessons from Google

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, has a problem. One of his chief engineers and VPs, James Damore, wrote a manifesto describing his views of the culture and diversity at Google. Damore’s ten-page memorandum accused Google of silencing conservative political opinions and argued that biological differences play a role in the shortage of women in tech and leadership positions. It circulated widely inside the company and then became public. This exposure caused a furor that amplified the pressure on Google executives to take a more definitive stand. Pichai took that position and fired Damore for breaking Google’s code of conduct. The Google leadership team set up a town hall meeting to allow the entire Google community to discuss the claims that Damore made openly, and just as quickly, they canceled the all hands meeting because of internal security concerns. Right wing websites published the names of individuals who were planning to question the Google diversity culture, and people feared that they would be outed.

Think of the issues facing Googles CEO. He decided to fire an employee for speaking his mind. Google touts its culture as diverse, transparent, and accepting of differences. Here is part of what Pichai had to say to the organization about that issue.

“This has been a very difficult time. I wanted to provide an update on the memo that was circulated over this past week. First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagrees with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our core values and our Code of Conduct, which expects ‘each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.’”

At the same time, some co-workers are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They, too, feel under threat, and that is also not OK. People must feel free to express dissent. Many points raised in the memo–such as the portions criticizing Google’s training, 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. “

I read the memo and believed that Damore stepped over the line, however, certain elements in his memo were well thought out and efficiently delivered. Pichai has to find a way to debate the issues that were brought forward by Damore. My experience as an executive coach says that we are all affected by bias (including Google and their leadership team). Beliefs and attitudes accumulate, as we age. Our biases reinforce actions that we don’t even see as right or wrong. We need perspective. To get that perspective, we need employees and colleagues willing to question our thinking. James Damore wrote that Google is an “echo chamber” promoting style of thinking. Is your company an echo chamber? Several years ago, one of my coaching clients was complaining about the lack of women in his workforce. His business was large with no women in leadership positions—none were applying, and he could not figure out why. I asked him to show me his company job posting. The language excluded women (unintentionally) from applying. This unintended bias eliminated any female candidates. When the posts were rewritten, his firm began to see a steady flow of strong female leadership candidates. Words do matter.

Over the past year or two, gender bias in the tech world has been a huge topic. A high percentage of all hires are male. Google CEO Pichai is challenged to deal with whatever bias exists and to make everyone feel comfortable speaking his or her mind without repercussion. We need real diversity and flexibility to different viewpoints if we want to meet the ever-accelerating challenges of today’s marketplace.  Perspective is a gift we should value highly.

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