Executives don’t decide if the company culture is good. Employees do.

Micromanaging your workforce is not an innovative work strategy

Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version. Quick note: Thanks for bearing with my slowness this week as I’ve been trying to take a long-planned but now ill-timed few days off to recharge. Next week will be back at a regular pace!

It’s been a bad week for the enterprise software company, Basecamp. On Tuesday CEO Jason Fried announced that Basecamp would stop employees from partaking in “societal and political discussions” on the company’s internal software. The cryptocurrency company Coinbase instituted a similar policy last year.

Fried’s co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson followed with a series of blog posts about the decision, responding to commentary and reporting from tech observers and Silicon Valley. If you haven’t followed the story, I highly suggest starting with Casey Newton’s reporting on Basecamp’s history over at Platformer, and his follow up the next day. The whole affair ended grimly on Friday with roughly one-third of the employees taking buyouts from the company.

Why’d this happen and why does everyone care so much about the internal strife at a company with less than 60 employees? There’s one line from Newton’s first piece that I found particularly revealing (emphasis mine):

Hansson told me that the rules are not draconian — no one is going to be bounced out the door for occasionally straying out of bounds. The founders’ goal is to reset the culture and focus on making products, he said, not to purge political partisans from the workforce. 

No subject came up more in the reporting that my partner Anne Helen Petersen and I have done for our upcoming book on the future of remote work (shameless pre-order link goes here) than “company culture.” It’s one of those perfectly amorphous phrases that is both essentially meaningless and also very real. Often, there are two company cultures. There’s the glossy, official, Comms Department-approved culture — and then there’s the real, lived experience of showing up every day and working at a place. If the difference between those two versions is large enough, the result is generally serious, sustained, employee-management resentment. Let’s call that “culture gap.”

From an outsider’s perspective, culture gap was a significant issue at Basecamp. For years, the company and its founders have touted their vision for remote, distributed work and how to build innovative, healthy, productive cultures — to the extent that they’ve written five books on the subject! There’s nothing wrong with doling out advice or being proud of what you’ve built, but holding yourself up as an exemplar creates an expectation that, well, your company culture is exemplary. Lots of employees are frustrated and feel un-listened-to by their bosses. But it all hits differently when those same bosses wrote a book entitled It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.

Basecamp has built an innovative remote working model over the last few decades, which is why their “reset the culture” argument caught me off-guard. See, your company culture is not a frozen Sega Genesis cartridge — you can’t just take it out, blow on it, and turn it back on again and start anew. Company cultures solidify slowly, taking form over years and decades. They’re complex ecosystems because they’re made up of real, live human beings — not lines of code.

The company has failed in a number of intersecting ways — I recommend checking out this open letter to the Basecamp founders from Jane Yang. But “reset the culture” gets to the heart of why the company has shown its ass for the last week — and why a third of its workforce took a buyout. But the type of executive who thinks they can just reset company culture with a sweeping, restrictive decree just straight up isn’t a very good manager. And they’re not a very good manager because deep down, they don’t trust their employees.

That doesn’t mean the Basecamp founders aren’t software visionaries or excellent at crafting long-term corporate vision. They’re clearly intelligent and have thought deeply about how systems are designed and implemented. But none of that means they’re predisposed to be good managers of people. People managing is fundamentally different from product managing or strategic planning. It’s messy and emotional and hard to quantify. There’s no way to do it efficiently, at least not in the way we’ve come to think of “efficiency,” because it’s hard to automate or streamline the process of listening to and understanding the humans who work for you.

In our reporting, we heard time and again that employees naturally shy away from being vulnerable around their employers. It takes a good manager to create the space for them to do that. The entire process is about building trust: to say what they actually need, what’s actually working and not working, to provide honest feedback. Without trust, all of that goes unsaid.

There’s no silver-bullet or technological solution to make work (especially remote work) less shitty and less exploitative. If a company culture sucks, it’s almost always because managers are either untrained in managing people or they just don’t trust their employees. Behavior psychologist David De Cramer argues that companies fail to see the role or value of trust in work relationships precisely because its effects are often indirect: as he puts it, trust means “information is communicated more openly, people are more willing to help one another and willing to test ideas even if these may ultimately fail.” With time, trust leads to more experimentation, more creativity, and higher worker satisfaction — the building blocks of quality work. A Good Thing.

With that in mind, here’s one way to look at the Basecamp fiasco: The company’s employees asked to start their own Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion council. Despite mild interest from up top, 20 out of nearly 60 employees volunteered to to help out with the council’s hard work of evaluating past practices. Some of this work (implicitly or explicitly) led to a discovery of a shameful company document and, eventually, an internal reckoning from the founders. Hansson himself called the process “progress.” Employees sought to continue that progress by similar means — but the founders saw the conversations that ensued as disruptive and created a policy designed to end any similar discussions in the future.

With the caveat that I might not have all the information, this outcome sounds very much like a classic case of managers not listening to or trusting their employees. “It's become too much. It's a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places,” founder Jason Fried wrote. “It's not healthy, it hasn't served us well.” All of that seems like an odd thing to say when the committee helped the company arrive at a long-awaited reckoning over inappropriate company behavior. Uncontrolled infighting and name-calling in company chat apps may not be the paragon of worker productivity, but that doesn’t seem that Basecamp descended into Lord of the Flies style anarchy. The founders don’t seem to trust their employees not to head down that path.

Over this past week, the founders have publicly framed their “reset” decision in the same manner they framed their books: as a form of forward-thinking corporate strategy. By outlawing political discussions on company platforms, they seem to be arguing, Basecampers are freed up to do the real work. Some other Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists applauded the decision — some even cited no politics policies as the future of work.

But let’s be clear: this position is bullshit and disingenuous. There are all sorts of positions, behaviors, and statements that white cis-gendered straight men don’t consider “political” just simply because they represent the status quo. For people who don’t occupy those identities, their very existence — and talking about it, and the realities that accompany it — are automatically deigned “political,” and, as such, outside of “acceptable” discourse. Starting a cryptocurrency company to try to decentralize the global financial system? Apparently, not political. Talking about healthcare as a human right or paid family leave in the company chat? Political. Again, this is bullshit.

This controversy happening, in this moment, at a company on the vanguard of the remote work movement is ironic — but it’s also disheartening. It’s ironic because, as Basecamp’s founders know, asynchronous work requires trust — the kind that comes when executives model vulnerability. It’s disheartening because Basecamp’s failures this week will lead others to question whether distributed companies can navigate internal crises without gathering in person.

But Basecamp’s failures over the past week have less to do with the company’s remote setup than with a failure of management. The company’s troubles echo what we heard from dozens of management coaches, executives, and sundry employees while reporting our book. Strategy and product visions only go so far. And success in those areas has limited impact on real company culture. What makes working at a company fulfilling is actually quite simple. You have to align the goals of your organization with the health and stability of the employees.

“The future of work,” Adam Segal, the CEO of Cove, a company that helps coordinate shared desk and conference space told us, “is actually having to manage people.” He was referring to the fact that, in the past, most management took place in person — and now, managers would need to figure out how to have conversations, and judge performance, from afar.

This work — the work of really listening and then responding — is hard, in part because it is incredibly human. It’s also not sexy or all that innovative. But it is disruptive to the status quo. We have so few models of good management, let alone good company culture, in our past or our present, in part because it doesn’t scale very well. This week, Basecamp demonstrated that no amount of unique vision and advocacy can separate you from legions of traditional firms afraid to relinquish control. You can talk a big, profitable game about company culture, as Basecamp’s founders have for years. But in the end, executives don’t decide if your company culture is good. Your employees do.

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