There's been a consistent stream of folks coming out against the trend towards inclusivity, corporate activism and encouraging new ways of working that's been prevalent over the past several years. Whether it's railing against the move towards work from anywhere or declaring their companies are no longer places to discuss politics, more leaders are feeling more comfortable 'going against the grain'.
I honestly have no issue with someone who doesn't want their company to take a political stance, or who do want to mandate a return to the office. You have the right to have differing opinions, or indeed, no opinion at all. The problem I have is what often accompanies these types of decisions: hypocrisy and an unwillingness to take personal or corporate responsibility and own the fallout.
Looking at how Coinbase or Basecamp/37 Signals were criticised for their decisions to reduce political discourse in the workplace is an interesting case study. Coinbase came across as problematic, but clear, whereas Basecamp, with its corporate and founders' history of thumbing their nose to authority and opinionated challenging of others in the industry, came across as hypocritical when they appeared to suddenly stop similar challenging discussions happening internally.
The return to work shift also has its challenges, with companies simultaneously requiring staff to come back to the office (including staff that had been hired with flexibility sold to them) while also complaining about high staff turnover and a difficulty in recruiting as a result.
Mandating everyone come back to the office, I have no problem with. Basing your decision on feelings rather than data, then throwing your toys out of the pram when the result of that leads to your staff walking, and then blaming those staff and not taking responsibility for your decision is where you lose me.
Mike Hopkins from Amazon was surprisingly honest when talking about why returning to the office was necessary: "I don’t have data to back it up, but I know it is better.” It's not the data, it's the comfort that presenteeism brings to many when they don't have a good understanding of what productivity looks like. If you really want to say "It just feels better", then say it. But own it, and whatever consequences it brings (good or bad, and it might be good!).
Diversity without Inclusion doesn't win
A final area I'll touch on that definitely affects founders is thinking about your early team members. If you honestly believe that hiring a bunch of people that look and sound like you is the best way to get what you want built, then embrace that. Don't pretend to be inclusive until it becomes hard: that's just virtue signalling. Virtue-signalling is bad regardless of your position on an issue. The insincerity does a disservice both to the people you're trying to deceive as well as those who might agree with your position.
I had an interesting conversation with Danae Shell from Valla who made the point that in the short term, while diverse teams perform the best, the second best is the other extreme of a super homogenous group while a useless mix of the two performs the worst.
Monocultures are seen to be weak, blind to potential pitfalls and not as innovative (which studies back up). But (again, only in the short term) homogeneous teams still perform better than teams that have diversity but without inclusion.
When you're in innovation-mode, it can feel like a short-cut: you feel like you're just able to get more done when you're more comfortable working with people who look, sound like, think like and come from a similar background to you. When that happens, that can often feel like an efficiency attributed to a monoculture. But that perceived speed of decision-making could actually be tied to your mental model alignment and the benefits of smaller teams more generally.
While I believe that a diverse approach to building a company is the strongest, it's hard. But it brings with it resilience, awareness, and an insight to be able to serve more customers and make more money. Sometimes when pushed up against that discomfort, it's a convenient and easy route to roll over and make claims about efficiency rather than dealing with the discomfort and growing.
What does this mean for founders? We all have a certain familiarity with cognitive dissonance. We need it to have the audacity to believe in something when others won't. But we also suffer from how that leads to more cognitive dissonance. Sometimes we actually need to learn and adapt, and sometimes we need to stay stubborn.
Obviously, I'd argue that you should want to be challenged even if it's uncomfortable. But if you are constantly reflecting on yourself and think a decision, a way of building a company, the way you approach your team is the right one (even if it's not popular), then you should own it. Being sincere in the short term gives you clarity in the long term. It might be the wrong decision and people like me might disagree with it, but it will serve you better than the alternative.
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