Ultimatums, Edge Cases, and Basecamp

“One does not have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”
— Charles M. Blow

A few days ago, Basecamp announced some changes to their organization. Since we’ve publicly shared that some of Basecamp’s books and philosophies have influenced the Corgibytes culture, we feel it is necessary to share our dissent on some of their recent decisions, particularly around their policy of “no more societal and political discussions” at work.

Personally, I’ve found a lot of overlap between leading teams and parenting my kids. With my kids, I’ve been so frustrated at times that I draw a hard line. For example, “THAT’S IT! No more screens for you — EVER!!” But every time I’ve done this, it’s come back to bite me…hard. That’s because it’s an unrealistic expectation that blurs the boundaries and degrades trust. I bump into edge cases I didn’t anticipate. A teacher needs my kid to use a screen to submit homework, or a friend who lives far away wants to have a virtual playdate, or their great-grandmother calls on a video chat. Clearly, the “no-screens” rule wasn’t intended to block those things, but it did. It’s about the impact, not the intentions.

The phrasing of Basecamp’s new policy comes across the same way. There are simply too many edge cases. It’s impossible to separate how the world impacts us from how we show up at work. Think about it…every single decision we make to live our lives in the presence of others is inherently a discussion about our social preferences. This shows up in the clothes we wear, the diet we eat, the music we listen to, and the media we watch. It’s also where we live, the causes we contribute to, and the way (if any) we worship.

There are also ways we show up that are inherently social and political which aren’t choices. The color of our skin, the anatomy we were born with, the way our brain is wired, who we love, the region of the world where we grew up, and many others. How are we supposed to leave those things out of a work context?

We shouldn’t have to. Just like with parenting, unrealistic boundaries are basically just ultimatums that end up doing more harm than good. And they miss the bigger point, which is nurturing productive conversations, healthy behaviors, and trust.

Here are some examples:

  • When someone is anguishing and grieving because of yet another mass shooting (there have been 147 mass shootings in the United States so far in 2021…and we’re only four months into the year), expecting them to buck up, shut up, and leave their baggage at the door because discussing it is “political” is hurtful.
  • When someone is living with fear knowing that people who look like them are being violently attacked at a greater rate, such as the recent surge against Asian Americans, expecting them to show up with a smile and pretend that everything is fine is not okay.
  • When someone is worried because a partner, parent, or friend is in law enforcement and puts their life on the line, expecting them to completely compartmentalize their anxiety is unacceptable.
  • When highly publicized US police killings of Black people continually inflict trauma, expecting them to escape it and pretend the pain doesn’t exist is wrong.
  • When there is an epidemic of violence against trans-gender and gender non-conforming people, expecting them to ignore their pain is unjust.

And these are just the big glaring examples. There’s private pain that doesn’t make headlines, too. When a loved one gets sick. When a pet passes away. When you combat imposter syndrome. Communicating that staff needs to keep all these feelings bottled away and focus “only on the work” is unhealthy and toxic, even if the policy was set with the best of intentions.

So, what to do instead?

It’s complex, and we don’t claim to have all the answers. We’re navigating this space, too. But the topic of showing up authentically matters to us and we keep a pulse on it. Our team consistently shares that there are some specific practices we do that are appropriate boundaries that support our goals.

  1. Recognize and develop empathy as a critical technical skill. Empathy is complex and nuanced. It can harm and heal. Empathy is paradoxically something that can increase political polarization as well as help people come together. It’s cognitively costly. Encourage your team to explore empathy as deeply as they would any other technical topic.
  2. Celebrate self care. Self care isn’t just for a crisis. It works best as a standard practice. When you encourage and practice emotional processing as work that takes effort and time, it’s easier to have difficult conversations. At Corgibytes, we lean on our “Calm The Chaos” value here.
  3. Encourage dissent, especially if you’re a leader. If you don’t hear people telling you you’re wrong or ways you should improve, you don’t have an environment where people feel safe enough to share.
  4. Lead with values. Our mission, vision, values, and commitment are our most important cultural tools. They’re anchors for decisions, large or small.

It’s also important to set clear expectations. Big ultimatums aren’t effective, but that doesn’t mean that all boundaries should go out the window. Quite the opposite. It’s critical to be clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay. Give specific examples rather than sweeping statements.

We have specific and situational boundaries throughout our wiki, and our staff shares how useful this guidance is. Here’s one example about what we expect when people write up personal reflections about their day.

What Should Journals NOT Include?

Since journals are shared across the company, it’s a good idea to think about the information you’re sharing. Journal writing should always be grounded in empathy, so consider your audience when you’re writing them. Here are some things you want to avoid in your journals:

  • Shame-Driven Language - Language that is meant to make another person feel inferior has no place at Corgibytes. We all have different world views and our culture is one of healthy conflict where we can discuss challenges and solutions with empathy.
  • Divisive Language - There are some topics that are loaded with stereotypes and assumptions, such as which political party you affiliate with, which religion or ideology you feel most closely aligns with your worldview, etc. These should be approached with immense sensitivity and thoughtfulness. If you decide it is relevant and appropriate to share, avoid language that polarizes topics and respect the need for nuance.
  • Emotional Discharging - Process your feelings first, then share. Check in if you’re writing in an emotionally charged state so you don’t say something you’ll regret.
  • Travel-Logging - A big part of your journal is to capture insights. If all you write in your journal is a list of events, it’s difficult for others to understand why those events are important.
  • Overly Sensitive Information - Expect that once you share something in your journal, people will refer to use that piece of information. There are obvious things like bank account numbers that you don’t want to share, but there are other nuanced things, too, such as a health condition. If you’re not ready to share something with everyone, it’s okay to keep it private.
  • Individual Criticism - No one wants to be thrown under the bus. Address interpersonal conflicts privately.
  • “Everything’s Fine” Veneer - It’s tempting to gloss over challenges and pretend they don’t exist. But that’s not reality. If you’re tempted to only write about the things that go well, check in to see if there’s an underlying reason why. Perfectionism is often a cover for shame. Other people can learn from your experiences and challenges.

For my kid, I made more discrete boundaries around screen time, too. We had discussions about what content is appropriate and we came up with time limits for apps that he tends to overuse. And these have been working. It’s less stressful for me as a parent and creates a healthier relationship overall. I try to remember how much more useful specific boundaries are when I’m leading the corporate culture at Corgibytes, too.

For us, telling people to just shut and show up is a big problem. It’s harmful and it goes against our values. If your goal is to reduce emotional discharging, making people feel like they need to sit in shame and fear is the exact opposite thing to do.

We respect Basecamp for their transparency. Their post sparked a productive dialogue on our own team about how we want to show up and collaborate together. Creating spaces where we can genuinely be ourselves, learn from our co-workers’ perspectives, and do good work in the process isn’t easy, but for us, it’s worth the effort.

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