By Guy Higgins
I’ve read, in its entirety, James Damore’s ten-page memo, Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, which captures his concerns about the ways in which Google approaches diversity issues and what he (Damore) thinks Google could do achieve a more representative workforce. I’ve also read some of the related op-ed pieces by columnists of both liberal and conservative bents. For those who’ve read my posts over the past six years, you may appreciate that I’ve read about and investigated a number of sources concerning diversity and differences. I, therefore, read Mr. Darmore’s memo in the context of what I’ve learned from those sources. I think that I understood his memo the way he intended for it to be understood. I want to post about two factors that I think have contributed to the firestorm that Mr. Damore’s memo has generated: first, his failure to effectively communicate his ideas on a highly emotional topic without creating “hate and discontent” and second, the failure of Google’s leadership to respond in a positive manner thereby generating more “hate and discontent.”
Before I start, I believe completely in Thomas Jefferson’s thunderous statement that, “…all men are created equal…” I believe that that statement means all human beings, and I also believe that, since the Declaration of Independence is a political statement, his words refer explicitly to political equality. I do not believe that “equal” means “identical.” We are all unique human beings, and it is mathematically provable that any way you want to categorize, group and measure us will result in a normal (Gaussian) distribution around some mean value (for those who really care, see the Central Limit Theorem). That, Noble Readers, is a fact!
Next, I applaud Mr. Damore’s intent to start an open and honest discussion of the problems swirling around diversity and continuing non-equalities (I’m using this word to cover all those situations in which there exists any kind of deviation from some kind of statistical mean – e.g. a non 50-50 gender balance, an African-American representation out of line with their 13.3% of the US population, etc.) in the workplace. It is a discussion that is long overdue, but before it can take place, we (that would be all of us interested in the issue) need to agree on a problem statement. That may be very difficult to do, but without it, we (again, all of us) cannot arrive at a solution. As Dr. Scott Page said in his book, The Difference, if you don’t share a common goal, you can’t achieve a common solution.
Now, let’s get into the meat of this post.
While I applaud Mr. Damore’s intent, his communication skills seem not to be up to the task of initiating a discussion on a topic with such “hot-button” potential as the convolution of diversity, bias and leadership ineffectiveness. I’ll “cherry pick” some instances from the memo in which Mr. Damore’s writing fell short of conveying (what I understand to be) his intent:
- On page 3 of his memo, Damore asserts, “On average, men and women biologically (emphasis added) differ in many ways.” I think that his choice of the word “biologically” destroyed his message almost at the start. Regardless of what he meant, many people, as evidenced by the virtual tidal wave of criticism from Google leadership and in the media, seem to have read that as physical differences. I don’t care that he added, “in many ways.” That doesn’t seem to have registered. The fact that, as a man, I have greater upper body strength than most women is irrelevant within Google (and within most organizations today unless you’re, e.g., a WWE wrestler or a Navy SEAL). He should have explicitly focused on differences that are relevant to Google. Dr. Louann Brizendine has written two books (The Male Brain and The Female Brain) that, I think, provide excellent overviews of the physiology of male and female brains and how those differences are manifested in our behaviors. Before anyone starts to explode, differences are statistical and do not predict how any one man or any one woman will behave – we are not identical (or “all made out of ticky tacky and … all look just the same.”)
- On page 4, Mr. Damore presents two figures – the first is of two bell curves whose peaks vary only slightly on the X-axis, and whose distributions appear identical. The second shows two vertical lines that, I assume, represent the mean of the two bell curves and are, again, only slightly different in the X-axis values. He provides no discussion of those figures or the importance of the information they present. I interpret the bell curves to show that while there is a difference in the mean measure of characteristics between men and women, the overlap of those characteristics is far greater than the differences. I think that the vertical lines at the means of the bell curves (the second figure) is meant to show how Google treats men and women – as identical representatives of groups that in actuality have significant variation. The absence of his discussing these points is, I think, an enormous (in the immortal words from Cool Hand Luke) “failure to communicate.” Damore missed the opportunity to explain why treating everyone as if they were all identical and at the mean of the curve is a disservice to almost everyone who is not at the mean of the curve– and therefore, unequivocally unfair.
- Throughout the memo, Mr. Damore includes numerous footnotes, but these footnotes are expansions of his basic discussion and do not include citations of supporting documentation. His citations of supporting documentation are included in embedded links. Maybe millennials will click on those links and read the supporting material, but research by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, shows that people react and decide based on the information that is immediately available to them and will not, generally, make the effort to seek additional information (such as clicking on links).
Once again, I appreciate what Mr. Damore tried to do, regardless of how well or how poorly he communicated. I do not, however, appreciate or approve of Google’s response. Google acted precipitously; they refused to discuss the memo (initially calling a “townhall” to do so and subsequently cancelling it) and fired Damore.
Danielle Brown, Google’s Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance said, “Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture,” but she (and the rest of Google leadership) refused to discuss the memo within Google or to address the author’s assertions and recommendations. Basically, they fired Mr. Damore for having a diverse opinion. This is an irony worthy of the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert. I will boldly assert that this reflects a total failure of leadership within Google. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this failure – only that it is obvious beyond credibility. In fact, Google’s failure here reminds me of Mark Twain’s observation in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
As you, Noble Reader, know, I think that cognitive diversity is critical to two organizational initiatives:
- Improving organizational performance – organizations that are more cognitively diverse show consistently better performance. In fact, the Wall Street Journal posted an article on August 13th about improved performance as a function of diversity (that doesn’t mean that they understood that cognitive diversity was the key though). Google should, I will boldly assert, understand that and figure out how to take advantage of it. Just because you have gender/racial/ethnic diversity doesn’t mean that you will see improved performance any more than you can expect flour, sugar, milk, eggs and chocolate to spontaneously cake-ize just because you put them together on the kitchen counter.
- Improving the representation of various minorities in the organizational workforce – while organizational leadership may feel good about increasing the representation of minorities in their workforce, they are more likely to put their energy into increasing their mission success. This is critical, because while hiring minorities without appreciating how cognitive diversity contributes to organizational success won’t guarantee improved performance, the data indicates that hiring for cognitive diversity will improve your minority demographics (See, Scott Page’s book The Difference referenced above or read his research papers published on his website) while contributing to organizational success.
My pro bono advice for Google:
- Admit that firing Mr. Damore was an emotional, kneejerk reaction and re-hire him.
- Hire Dr. Page (or someone who understands diversity since you don’t) to educate the Board, the Leadership and the workforce on identity diversity, cognitive diversity and biases.
- Develop a transparent plan to improve your cognitive diversity (and thereby your minority representation) and to put that resource (cognitive diversity) to work for you.
- Glory in the resulting improvement in employee engagement, organizational performance improvement and all those numbers that governments collect but don’t’ understand.
I have no expectation that Google will accept my advice (although the ROI would approach infinity since the advice is free). What I expect is that Google will “circle the wagons,” make no changes and get worse before they get better (if they ever do).