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Of Uber, Facebook, Google, and Cultural Limitations

What can the recent controversies at Google, Facebook and Uber teach us about cultural limits to decision making in our company and community?

On the face of it, from a cultural perspective, Google and Uber are very different companies.  Uber’s culture has evolved slowly and still reflects its roots as a “take no prisoners” startup company.  Google spends significant resources on maintaining and evolving its culture.  They hire very carefully to bring on people who fit.  They have teams within human resources (which they call People Operations) that focus on managing the culture and instilling it in all employees (Bock, 2015).  They just recently created the position of VP of Diversity to manage Google’s diversity and inclusion strategy.  Facebook is just as dedicated to building a common culture but they  work hard to maintain a “hacker culture” that focuses on creative problem solving, openness, boldness, speed and continuous improvement.

In the last three years each of these companies have faced a crisis that has pitted their culture against social culture.  Uber has been charged with sexual harassment that has led to a fractured board of directors and the firing of its CEO.  Facebook has faced charges of being a difficult workplace, imperialism, lack of professionalism, censorship and influencing elections.  Google is now embroiled in a fight over diversity that has some employees claiming that they are being shamed into silence because they hold diverse opinions that differ from the politically correct official views of the company.

These challenges in companies with very different cultures and ways of working highlight several questions that relate to how we manage corporate culture relative to ethics, social culture and decision making.  For example, in the face of internal criticism Google has chosen to fire the employee rather than engage in creative dialog.  Whether this will end the internal discussion is still an open question but it does suggest that a careful balance is needed to align corporate culture to achieve common goals while allowing creative discourse.  When tipped one way it leaves a company open to valid complaints about a lack of ethical standards.  When tipped the other way it leads to a stifling of opinions, creativity and innovation.

The problem and solution is tied to cognitive biases and group dynamics and how we, as individuals, interact to make decisions.  Arguably, when faced with an issue or opportunity, a company does best if it can critically evaluate a full set of options and select an approach that best serves the company, its people and broader society.  However, if not properly managed cognitive biases and group dynamics working under the guise of corporate culture can severely limit the options that are identified and further limit the evaluation that each option receives.

Let’s look at how that works.  Scientific research in Psychology and Behavioral Economics have demonstrated that cognitive biases tend to force us to rapidly reach a decision and then rationalize it as being the best choice.  Information that is not supportive of our choice is ignored or actively suppressed.  The preferred choice is often selected due to its familiarity rather than because of its quality or desirability.  This is referred to as the Familiarity Heuristic and is the basis for much of the advertising that companies create to develop familiarity with a product or service.  In an organization familiarity is often developed through corporate culture.  The culture places shared beliefs around areas such as safety, work/life balance, inclusiveness, collaboration and risk sensitivity in the front-of-mind.  When a decision needs to be made these beliefs lead to a rapid selection of a preferred option.  Our propensity for confirmation bias then leads us to defend that decision even if other better options exist.

Corporate culture is critical to allow individuals to work together as a team and make decisions quickly and efficiently.  It can become dysfunctional and result in poor decision making if it becomes so strong that it leads to group polarization and groupthink.  Group polarization is the tendency of groups to make more extreme decisions than team members would make individually.  Corporate culture can provide support for groups to make extreme decisions when faced with a business challenge. 

It can also lead to Groupthink.  Groupthink was first described by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 (Janis, 1972).  He defined it as occurring when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgement.  He went on to define the symptoms of groupthink as including:

  • An illusion of invulnerability
  • Collective rationalism
  • Belief that the rightness and righteousness of their cause allows ethical and moral consequences of their decision to be ignored.
  • Negative views of people holding other opinions.  They are viewed as “the enemy” rather than people who hold a different but valid view.
  • Direct pressure on dissenters in the group to only hold and voice the views of the group.
  • Self-censorship where doubts or deviations from the group consensus are not expressed
  • An illusion of unanimity where all members believe that everyone in the group holds the same views.
  • Self-appointed mind guards that protect the group by attacking any views or anyone holding views perceived to be contrary to the views of the group.

In this realm, the balance that an organization needs to maintain is one between a good corporate culture that allows all employees to work effectively, efficiently and ethically and a corporate culture that results in Groupthink where thinking becomes fossilized, innovation is stifled and creativity is lost.

When looking at the challenges at Google it is possible, while not commenting on the actual issue, to ask whether their corporate culture has crossed over from being a powerful tool that enables the organization, becoming instead a repository of Groupthink that is stifling opinions, innovation, and creativity.  This is a significant challenge for them going forward as they are deservedly proud of their corporate culture, work environment and its ability to develop innovative solutions.

At the heart of this are human factors and their impact on decision making in an organization.  We have many articles on this topic and others at TyraStrategies.com.

References

Bock, L. (2015). Work Rules! Insights From Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. . Boston: Houghton, Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-14002-1.