In a week where Gitlab and Buffer released their reports on the state of remote work, and Spotify announced their remote plans, we’ve read through it all and pulled out some key takeaways for you and your teams, so you don’t have to.
As some of you might be aware, last week Bill Michael, UK chairman of accounting giant KPMG, resigned after comments he made at a company all-hands were leaked to the press.
The headlines seem reasonably self explanatory:
This doesn’t seem too complicated. Leader tells staff to stop moaning during a pandemic, failing to appreciate the varied and complex personal situations of his workforce, particularly their mental health. This is bad. Leader has to go.
Well, yes there is that. But there is also slightly more to the story than the headlines suggest.
Somewhat lost under the ‘moaning’ headlines were Michael’s other comments about unconscious bias which, for the record, are painfully, almost farcically, bad. One of those cases where someone comes close to being right on one thing, and yet in the end manages to be so wrong.
One of the things he said was “after every single unconscious bias training we’ve ever had, nothing has ever improved.” On the face of it, this is pretty interesting. Unconscious bias training has been rolled out across the corporate world, despite the fact that various studies claim it’s not particularly effective in improving diversity, equity and inclusion. Particularly when implemented in isolation, and compared to other measures. Here’s the Harvard Business Review in 2016:
It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.
In the context where many companies are striving to improve DEI, the chairman of a UK employer of 15,000 people admitting that their unconscious bias training doesn’t work should be notable.
Except this slightly got lost because...
Rather than concluding that the absence of DEI progress was because of issues with the training, Michael instead came to the absurd position that it was because unconscious bias itself didn’t exist.
“I think unconscious bias has been complete crap, complete and utter crap for years, there is no such thing as unconscious bias, I don’t buy it.”
The facepalm emoji was invented for precisely these moments 🤦.
So an interesting finding on the effectiveness of unconscious bias training at KPMG, but very much the wrong messenger.
So how did we end up with this messenger?
One interview with Michael from 2018, describes him as a “tough, commercial operator” - characteristics that were presumably attractive when he was appointed chairman the year before. The same interview, however, also mentions that insiders jokingly referred to him as “the donald trump candidate” for the chairman’s job, due to his “swaggering style”.
Bearing in mind he ran for the job in 2017, this is not a flattering likeness. Michael, probably recognising the interview trap, said “that’s not a joke that would resonate with me”. But the comparison was nevertheless made. Now we’re not privy to the KPMG hiring processes but given this, and what has happened, it’s tempting to say that he was hired for his commercial rather than personal touch.
This scandal asks the question whether that’s enough anymore? Are the potential financial gains from a commercial operator enough to offset the harm caused by events like this.
Of course the answer will often be, it depends. But beyond the turmoil of leadership change, KPMG has undoubtedly suffered reputational damage which will affect the motivation of its teams and its ability to attract talent. What does it say to staff and potential hires that the firm was led for over 3 years by someone who had little time for the mental health, systemic and social struggles experienced by his workforce? Particularly when your website looks like this.
Hopefully the lesson others have drawn from this episode is that in choosing leaders, it’s more important than ever to look beyond the numbers, wherever they sit in your organisation.
If you’re interested in technology strategy, you might already know Kevin Kwok. He’s a former investor at Greylock Partners and writes deep dives on various products at kwokchain.com (don’t worry, the domain is a joke and was bought for him by a friend).
His most recent post looked at how Figma and Canva, two digital design startups, are taking on Adobe. If that sounds interesting to you then read the article in full, but we’re here for one paragraph at the very end where he talks about aligning employees on the purpose of a company or product.
As companies grow, two things are true:
It’s why managers often find themselves repeating the same stories about company purpose, or strategic objectives, or key product features to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Kwok has a useful tip which goes beyond that:
“One exercise I’ve often found useful for CEOs to do with their co-founders and team is to ask an important question about the company—and see how much everyone’s answers differ. People are always shocked at how much they differ from even their co-founder. It’s natural to have differences and that doesn’t even mean either person is wrong. But these unexpected differences in how to think about the company are the underlying faultlines that make it difficult to synchronize as a company…”
Next time, rather than just repeating key points to your team, why not try asking everyone what they think the answer is to a fundamental question. How do we retain customers? What’s the most important thing we’re working on? What do you think is the biggest risk to the team right now? If you think people will be shy in open debate, you can always collect the answers privately over email/Slack.
You may find the answers illuminating as to how aligned your team really is. Even after all those times you’ve repeated yourself.
It’s always nice to know that your voice is being heard, but a recent scientific study shows how important it really is.
Researchers at UC Santa Cruz who carried out the work found that in settings where people are working together on a task, two-way conversation was associated with higher levels of task enjoyment.
Well yes obviously, you might think, no-one likes just to be talked at. But as the lead researcher Andrew Guydish pointed out, this is exactly what is happening in a lot of remote work interactions. Often teammates will communicate specifically to accomplish a particular task, before moving onto the next thing. In these communications, often the person leading the assignment will do most of the talking, with little opportunity for others to get a word in. This isn’t ideal.
Guydish’s solution? Small talk. Although to do the work, one person may need to do most of the talking, by creating a small amount of unstructured time for others also to speak, even on unrelated matters, the general team approach to the task will be more positive.
In our endless drive to be more productive, chatting for a moment rather than focussing solely on the task at hand might seem wasteful. But this research suggests that managers should be giving it more time rather than less to keep their teams happy.