Caution — This is a topic people feel very strongly about. My goal here is to open up a conversation to help Founders and their staff to find common ground to build from.
Over the past year, there have been heated reactions to companies like Coinbase and Basecamp instituting strict policies to remove discussions about “societal issues” from workplace forums. This has subsequently spawned some really passionate discussions among Founders about where they stood on the issue.
The workplace is changing rapidly, as well as the voices within it, yet many Founders aren’t entirely clear as to what is “normalized” in workplace culture and what is taking things too far one way or the other. We’re all going to need to think through these issues very critically whether they are affecting us directly right now, or not.
This is a critical juncture in startup culture and leadership.
The Cost of Focus
Leaders of any organization rely on focus to get work done. When they see that focus get frayed by any distraction they get anxious and work to bring the organization back to focus. There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with a leader trying to drive focus, and I’d venture to guess most folks within the organization would appreciate that goal.
The thing is, our focus ultimately has a cost, and sometimes, those costs are too much to bear.
We can’t unilaterally assume that any policy that drives more focus is bearable. Focus doesn’t trump all costs. If focus means we need the team to work 80 hours per week, we can’t overlook the cost to their health, their relationships, and their mental well-being. We can choose to ignore that cost, but that doesn’t make the cost go unpaid by our staff.
The same goes for people’s free speech. We can silence their words in the name of focus, but that doesn’t remove the cost of that action. These aren’t financial costs that we can recoup later, they are human costs that require very different consideration altogether.
Oppression is a Broken Hammer
In the rush to regain this focus, and the frustration that comes with it, some Founders have taken to using the “hammer” to quell internal discussions around societal issues altogether. “Stop talking about societal issues at work and get back to work!” seems to be the implied and deliberate refrain from Founders.
The implication here is that we, as leaders, have some ability to control what people discuss at work. We have neither the right nor the ability, which makes using the “hammer” a useless tool to begin with which very well ends up creating more problems than solutions.
Let’s start with whether we have the right to control what people talk about, which is part of the core of this discussion. We can’t tell people what they can talk about, and to be fair, I have yet to meet a Founder who actually wants to oppress free speech, even those that are staunchly in favor of removing societal discussion from work.
Those that are in favor of preventing societal discussions at work focus on more work getting done — not necessarily the implied oppression that comes with telling people what they can’t talk about. Yet when we shut down lines of communication, no matter what our intent, the result is always going to look, feel and act like oppression.
Compromise and Understanding
Ultimately in order to achieve both focus and free speech, we need compromise and understanding, two concepts our polarized world have become increasingly shitty at — but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better.
Compromise in this case means we have to realize that the world isn’t going to mold to our preferences, no matter how strongly we feel about them, and the more we remain rigid, the less progress we’re going to make together. Understanding is the fundamental empathy we use to recognize that there is merit in other people’s objectives, even if they don’t neatly align with or agree with ours.
For staff, that may look like this “Hey boss, I do appreciate that you want to get work done here, but I have issues that are very important for me to express. How can I express myself without deep-sixing the work you’re tasked with doing?”
For leadership, that may look like this “Hey team, I do appreciate these issues are deeply important to you. How do I keep people focused on work while providing a platform to express yourself?”
Perhaps that discussion, while very difficult, could have lead to an option to create forums specifically for expressing political views that others who were interested in could join. Or, perhaps it left the views out in the open, with some basic parameters on how to be mindful of others (and the workplace) around them.
What matters most is that the discussion doesn’t get shut down on either side. What matters is that we step aside from our singular focus and consider what we need to do in order to create a common framework that actually works. There’s room for everyone here, so let’s create a seat at the table for all of us.