The best hope for repairing our tattered social fabric may be in our workplaces
In 2003, a friend called me and posed a challenge: “I have a software team that needs to achieve the impossible in six months, and they need leadership. Would you be willing to help?” It was exactly the kind of sticky situation that I love, and I eagerly agreed to meet the team.
What I found was far worse than described. The team hated each other, and spent most of their meetings hurling insults and allocating blame for failure at the feet of people who weren’t in the room. Coding wasn’t happening, since the coders were tired of being given poor instructions and then having their work publicly trashed in code reviews. They had no idea how to solve some significant problems in product design, and their ship date was fast approaching.
The cast of characters was as diverse and provocative a group as I had ever experienced. They were unmanaged, unruly, unkempt and unhinged. At one point, the CEO asked me to fire a programmer whose behavior distracted the team on a daily basis. He would wear gold lamé lederhosen, with no shirt–an outfit made more troubling by the fact that he didn’t shower much. On top of his visual and olfactory offenses, he loved to prompt conversations not-safe-for work.
Still, he was a great coder. So he and I hashed things out for several hours and came to some agreements: he could wear the lederhosen, but couldn’t go shirtless. He could talk about his passionate love of death metal, but couldn’t argue for why gay porn was superior to the “stupid hetero stuff.”
That wasn’t even the most bizarre, disruptive case. But given the rapidly approaching deadline, firing the team and restarting wasn’t an option. The threat to the company was existential, and the deadline was immovable. I had to play the hand I was dealt. I felt overwhelmed and doubted I was up to the challenge. Which is why I took the job. You often hear actors talk about taking on roles to stretch themselves. Well, this was going to be a hell of a stretch.
Five months later we shipped a successful product. Books could be written about what we did and how we did it. But for the purposes of this story, let’s just say that somehow the impossible was achieved: we were under budget, on time, and had cracked some extremely hairy technical problems. As a team. The celebration is still vivid in my memory: drinking, laughing, storytelling. The team that couldn’t stand each other had triumphed.
But this wasn’t the movies. There weren’t any lingering slow-motion shots of hugging and crying, while the narrator described “a newfound respect for each other.” Nobody in that celebration particularly liked each other. Some found others truly revolting. I imagine that if they met outside of work a fistfight might have broken out. But they did learn to collaborate. They found a way to accomplish a common goal and work on the issues until the job was done. The celebration wasn’t just about finishing the project. It was about overcoming the odds.
I was reminded of this experience over the last few days as I saw insurrectionists led by the President of the United States attempt to overthrow American democracy. My blood boiled as I saw violence and desecration brought to institutions that, while deeply flawed, have stood for the promise of a more perfect union. White privilege, racism, and male pattern baldness all stormed the capital under the guise of returning to a terrible and hateful past. And I asked myself “Could I work with these people?”
To be clear, I wasn’t asking myself “Could I find common cause in the political debate with these people?” I am starting to doubt that I could. Representative government seems to be no longer representative of what I hold to be our founding aspirations. Gerrymandering, technology and money seem to have joined in an unholy trinity, fueling self-serving political leaders that exists to ensure that narrow agendas get served while the body politic suffers and dies.
When I ask “Can I work with these people?” I am quite literally saying “Could I ship software with them? Build a business with them? Serve customers with them?”
Could I work with them?
We no longer gather together at the bowling alley. Our neighborly picnics are on indefinite quarantine. The social capital that is the wellspring of the trust that we need to keep the lights on, agree on the value of money, and take care of our children is not generated as it once was through community engagement and civic institutions. Increasingly, we learn about each other, share our stories with each other, learn to get along, and find our best selves through our work.
I didn’t like the guy in the lederhosen. I didn’t want to have a beer with him, and wasn’t fascinated by his story. But he ended up being great at his job. I didn’t respect the CTO that had driven the product team into the ditch. He was a terrible coder and an even worse team leader. But every day in our stand-ups he would come up with the critical provocative question or insight we needed to break through the latest logjam. We couldn’t have succeeded without his input. All these people were important.
We don’t need to agree with each other to work together, to succeed together. Through the lens of appreciating their talents I gained compassion and openness to their points of view. I learned from them. My worldview expanded. I believe this is an important way that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice: we fill sandbags to prevent the flood, we raise the barn demolished by the tornado, we bring food to the family that lost a child. We get to work. Together.
Business leaders have long been uncomfortable with their roles as the designers and managers of social workspaces. They cling to fragile notions that we can separate the professional from the personal. Frederick Taylor claimed we can demand that rational, logical, humorless and emotionless people show up during daylight hours and work in harmony to produce something to deliver value to shareholders. Taylor-inspired business leaders have long believed in carrots and sticks–we can dangle more money to get more work out of people, or apply more force to get more compliance.
This scheme has always been a myth. Humans aren’t robots with emotional problems. We are more like chimps with calculators. But like all myths, the story was useful. It enabled founders, leaders and managers to avoid taking responsibility for their own confusion, their own emotional struggles and failures. Their own humanity. They could fire people without feeling bad (though they always feel bad), they could demand the impossible without having to commit to it themselves. The 19th-century notion of the soulless, mechanistic automaton bringing their skills to work without the attendant human mess has long been a way to shield ourselves from the realities of what people are like, and how business really runs.
But we can no longer afford that myth. We are not rational. Rational people don’t stage an insurrection by wearing Viking horns and Broadway make-up. We are a confused, messy species. One that can commit horrific atrocities. But also one that can accomplish amazing things together. We can build great products, deliver amazing services. We can come together to achieve the impossible. And we don’t have to like each other to do it.
If we, business leaders, want to keep our businesses running and growing, keep our markets vibrant and open, we can no longer enjoy the luxury of the 19th-century professional myth. Work is where people are going to learn about each other. Where we are going to start to accept that we are deeply and profoundly different and often confused. Work is where the chaotic will be allowed to find some sort of productive order. The conversations about race and gender and power are going to have to happen. Those realities affect our ability to work together. We can’t hide from that. Management will need to be excellent at helping confused people make sense of themselves and the world around them. It will be the only way to take the gift of our diversity and make it productive. Government and community institutions are not as dependable as they once were in moving us forward. It is up to us.
Let us all hope that the jails of our capital are packed with insurrectionists held accountable for their wanton destruction. And let us all hope that we more consistently recognize the stark contrasts which cause such deep confusion. When people of color march we raise armies to suppress them, but when white people terrorize our leaders, we take selfies and boast. Let us hope that we can reconcile and make peace with each other, without making peace with that which is intolerable.
But that will all take time. And today, we have to get to work.