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3 executive takeaways about culture from the Google mess

If you want employees to choose and reward actions that focus on business success, then you need to become intentional about rooting out the behaviors that work against this dynamic.

5 min read




Is Google a progressive example of big data and stock-market performance or a hotbed of interpersonal bias and infighting threatening to distract itself from success?

After following the news swirling out of their firing of the engineer who wrote an internal manifesto decrying Google’s diversity campaign promoting women in tech, and diversity-correctness in general, it’s easy to make an argument for the distraction theory.

The sheer volume of press Google’s internal dustup has generated is also distracting for the rest of us, especially when combined with news about how systematic sexual discrimination and harassment played a part in bringing down former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. These peeks into the seamier sides of corporate culture shine a spotlight on how difficult it is to create a diverse workforce that can harmoniously focus on the business.

We want to believe that our company culture supports our business objectives, but since research tells us that our own unconscious biases filter our views, how can we be so sure?

The typical executive is much more interested in fighting the business fire in front of them than they are wrestling with these cultural issues, and this has given rise to offices of diversity and instructions to the HR department to look into the problem. Unfortunately, these people quickly encounter a dizzying number of programmatic solutions with varying track records of success, many of which depend on whether the executives themselves reinforce their outcomes.

Also, unfortunately, the research itself does not proscribe definitive guidance to companies trying to do the right thing by shareholders and employees. Some research shows business benefits from gender diversity and other social factors while others find that cognitive diversity produces more results.

In my experience as an executive coach, change and culture consultant, these kinds of discussions around unconscious bias, diversity and company culture frequently give the executives I support a hall-of-mirrors queasiness. Despite holding power in the company, many leaders feel powerless to build a company culture where everyone can contribute their best. And, as these issues become more visible inside and outside the biggest companies in the world, it’s hard for leaders not to feel vulnerable to factors they don’t control, like whether your employees feel discriminated against.

Here is my advice to executives when you feel that flop in your stomach around cultural diversity.

Own your influence

You don’t control your employees’ feelings, but you have a larger effect on them than you may want to admit. Culture is the amalgam of everyone’s behavior, but if the average employee’s actions are a pebble dropping into the culture pond, yours are a boulder. How you treat people, in public and private, does more to create cultures that tolerate — or don’t — unquestioned bias, microaggressions and outright discrimination than anything else.

Don’t ignore your boulder and pass off the problem to anyone else. Own your influence in every choice you make about how you achieve results. Don’t pass the buck. Challenge your peers to do the same.

Build psychological safety into your leadership habit

One read of the Google engineer’s backlash against what he perceived as a too politically correct culture is that Google failed at creating the positive cultural dynamic it was responsible for identifying in the first place: psychological safety. People negatively polarize more easily against each other when they feel vulnerable to shame and blame.

When you remove the shame and blame, people’s positive contributions come more readily to the fore, contributing to more innovative and useful business outcomes. There’s a lot you can do, personally, to remove shame and blame from the company culture, simply by how you run your meetings and discussions, publically and privately. Become a master at creating psychological safety and show others how it’s done. Start now.

Co-opt the invisible hand of culture to create business success

Once you own your ability to help create a culture where psychological safety is the norm, you begin to access the power to wield the invisible hand of culture to produce business results. The reason it matters is that culture programs the organization’s default intuition for how to handle every decision, customer conversation and employee interaction. Culture takes your place in leading and providing direction when you’re not physically present.

If you want every employee to choose and reward actions that focus on, rather than distract from, the business’ success, then you need to become intentional about rooting out the behaviors that work against this dynamic. Certainly, shame, blame, discrimination and harassment fall into that category, but so do many others, and these are specific to your business. Learn what they are and help your people replace them with behaviors that support the growth and success you are personally committed to achieving.

Turn this cultural awareness and maintenance into an organizational habit and you’ll find the invisible hand of culture supporting you all along the way.

It’s easy to fall into fire-fighting mode instead of doing the introspective and important work of culture creation, but this is one of the key distinctions between an executive who is a true leader and one who just gets high on the adrenaline of dousing the latest blaze.


Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Coaching. An executive coach and change management thought leader, she cracks the code on personal power in the workplace. In addition to her private practice, Theus helps organizations bring emotionally intelligent coaching services to middle management through facilitation, consulting and group coaching. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

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