What if the former Google engineer James Damore had worked with a collaborator for his 10-page Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber screed?
The outcome could have been the exact opposite.
If the now fired employee had teamed up with — or at least talked with and taken the advice of — a colleague with complementary skills, this would be a non-story. Instead, it’s a contentious conversation within Silicon Valley as well as the global business world.
Yes, Damore could have broken through the echo chamber, initiated deep discussion, and kept his job while sharing his points of view.
To do so, Damore would have needed to invest time and energy to present his screed in an optimal manner, definitely more brain-friendly than what he did.
Regardless of the conversations though, Google’s basic positions and actions on diversity probably would not and should not change. The business case for diversity is strong, as Christopher Mims’ column What the Google Controversy Misses: The Business Case for Diversity in the Wall Street Journal clearly explains.
As I studied in my applied neuroscience program, research shows that team members enjoy working on homogenous teams, but diverse teams reach better outcomes. Also, more diverse companies field smarter teams, are more innovative, and enjoy better financial performance. (See Mims’ article for links to the research.)
However, these findings remain counterintuitive for many people, which is why we can benefit from more open, in-depth discussions about diversity.
Process matters, especially when you’re dealing with controversial and polarizing topics and individuals with strong opinions on all sides of the issues.
How would the process differ? Here are just three suggestions.
1. Ask questions to jump start constructive conversations. Damore avoided asking any questions in his screed. Instead, he made statements built on assumptions that not everyone shares. (Are humans really generally biased towards protecting females? Do men have a higher drive for status?)
As a result, depending on your gender, point of view and experience, it’s easy to be surprised or feel threatened by the content, which makes it difficult to be open-minded about it.
Contrast that with some open-ended, thought-provoking questions such as:
- What are some things we don’t talk about here that we should be talking about?
- Google’s sacred motto is “Don’t be evil.” However, if some employees feel they have to suppress their opinions because they’re not mainstream or popular and therefore these employees cannot bring their full selves to work, to what extent are they experiencing evil treatment?
- What can we do to make it comfortable for everyone to share their point of view and, if need be, “agree to disagree”?
Questions like these encourage you and others to stop and think, and engage each other in thoughtful dialogue. This type of dialogue can help generate “a-ha” moments, which are the key to better understanding and then behavior change. (See Why an “a-ha” helps behavior change.)
2. Shorten the document and punch it up. At 3351 words, this screed is more than 3 to 6 times today’s customary length for blog posts and articles. Just because Damore had time to write on a 12-hour flight to China doesn’t mean more words are better – especially if people stop reading or get tired and cranky as they take time to plow through it.
And you do have to work to read it. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 13.2, compared to 8th grade for newspapers and popular blogs. The Flesch Reading Ease is 36.9% on a scale of 100% for easy reading.
The document also lacks helpful guideposts and points of reference to make it more inviting and meaningful to readers. For example, influential writers are empathetic. They think about how others will receive and react to their words and try to put themselves in those shoes—especially those who may need convincing, such as diversity officers and females for this screed.
Effective writers also look for ways to make the unfamiliar familiar. Damore could have referenced the popular Search Inside Yourself, authored by Chade-Meng Tan, one of Google’s earliest engineers and the company’s first “Jolly Good Fellow.” (This book, which also became a popular course at Google, is intended to help you find meaning and fulfillment in your work and life.)
3. Use the screed to launch diverse discussion forums inside Google. Conversation, especially with questions and answers as described in #1, works better than formal communication to get people reflecting on their points of view and the impact their beliefs and assumptions have on them and others. Being able to articulate your thoughts and then verbalize them to others and then listen to their reactions helps clarify your thinking. This process also can lead to insights, including those “a-ha” moments.
In a company like Google, an engineer such as Damore could have easily asked four or five colleagues (preferably “friends of friends” to include women and other diverse individuals) to join him at a table over lunch in the company cafeteria to discuss his screed. If individuals found the conversation of value they could have continued it, brought in others, and found a company sponsor to support it.
To do these conversations well, you need to have honorable intentions, an appropriate skillset, and ground rules to help everyone stay within bounds. By the way, the new book We Can’t Talk About That at Work!: How to talk about race, religion, politics, and other polarizing topics by Mary-Frances Winters is a great guide for those new to bold, inclusive dialogue–especially if you can’t get outside help.
Speaking of doing this alone, that’s where Damore ran into problems, based on my experience. Engineers who are steeped in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) can benefit from working with a LEAF.
LEAFs, as I’ve dubbed them, have expertise in listening, empathy, articulation, and facilitation – the “soft skills.”
STEMs and LEAFs complement one another, especially when STEMs realize that soft skills can be hard to do well.
If you were Damore, what else could you have done differently?