How Google’s ‘diversity’ memo exposes myths of managing people and information

No, you can't keep internal communications internal, honesty is not the best policy and no organization can achieve total cultural harmony.

How Google’s ‘diversity’ memo exposes myths of managing people and information


In his ripping good book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman explains System One’s “fast thinking” as instinctive and emotional. System 1 is at work when you catch a ball or spot a friend or avoid an accident. It does its job in seconds.


I have another example of System 1 at work: reacting to the infamous Google memo on diversity, women, and fear of speaking up. Most people I know (and probably you know) reacted instinctively and emotionally — fire the jerk, he has a point, what about free speech, it’s a step back for equal pay, nerd’s revenge, etc. My System 1 went into overdrive in seconds as my personal, professional and political instincts fired up like an electric coffee grinder.


But time has passed. Let’s pay respect to System 2 — the analytical functions — and look methodically at one of the Google case’s most challenging issues: How to manage information flows within a vast organization. Over and over we tend to say this is, at heart, a crisis of communication. Okay, how should an organization be communicating?


I see three myths exposed in the Google crisis, with attendant lessons for our time.


Myth number 1: We can keep our internal communications internal.


As the current crisis revealed (to me, at least), Google is honeycombed with internal networks and platforms for employee chatter — gossip, parking, food, politics, hobbies, etc. — created for the Google community and, I gather, walled off from outsiders.


This last point is an illusion. Savvy veterans of public relations — and the sub-field employee communications — know that anything written and shared internally can be seen by the outside world in seconds — and will be seen if it’s about layoffs, mergers or other strategic actions.


As reported in the New York Times, a Google security official last year “implored employees not to leak information” — which is a realistic request when it comes to legally protected, proprietary business information but a fool’s expectation when it comes to everything else. Even salaries were leaked at one time, setting off an earlier Google crisis.


Everything that might be made public should be considered out there the moment a manager learns about it.


Myth 2: Honesty is the best policy.


At the same time, giving up and blabbing company secrets is not the answer. Knowing that plans and policies might leak out to the world is not a license for giving up and doing laundry in public. Businesses — like personal lives — are successfully run by creating value, developing ways to capitalize on value, and shaping markets ahead of competitors. This requires managing and releasing information according to professionally accepted practices.


Insider trading and stealing intellectual capital are crimes for a reason. Some information belongs only in legally entitled hands.


Myth 3: We can achieve 100% cultural harmony.


No other myth is more dangerous than the rosy ideal that “we are all on the same page.” Diversity of backgrounds and disciplines — so vital as both a social goal and competitive advantage — implies tolerance for a diversity of opinions. Ah, but within guidelines set by enlightened and confident leaders.


Should there be tolerance for racist or sexist rants? For religious or political proselytizing? For a memo that disparages a class of fellow employees? Of course not. The opposite of 100% cultural harmony is disruptive dissension — and that no organization can accept. The Google memo writer needed to be fired.


It’s up to savvy leaders to define the lines. Speaking up — even about an environment allegedly hostile to speaking up — can’t be squelched. But attacks on fellow employees — even in the pretentious guise of cold logic — crosses the line.




So how can leaders lead when internal information will get out, transparency can be harmful, and 100% cultural harmony is unattainable?


The best approach is akin to good parenting: Establish clear, logical, non-ideologically driven, enterprise-bolstering guidelines that are strict enough to warrant enforcement, clear enough to be understood and observed, and loose enough to allow free-spirited individuals to live and work.


Such guidelines must derive from first principles — This is who we are, what are we want to achieve, and how we expect people to work and interact for mutual success and satisfaction.


Working from first principles allows avoidance of politically charged language. Here’s one example: “For us and those we serve to be successful, we need employees from all backgrounds, cultures, disciplines, strengths and genders. This is essential to being the best and creating the most value for all.”


That’s a first principle. Is that “diversity”? Why even use the word?



About the Author

Claude Singer, Ph.D. is Brandsinger’s Managing Partner. He has served in executive roles at branding firms Siegelvision, Siegel+Gale and Lippincott, and previously held VP positions in corporate and employee communications at Aetna and Chemical Banking Corporation. He holds a doctorate in History from University of Washington.