Building a culture of respect

It’s at this point common wisdom, at least within the tech startup community, that diversity is not only good but necessary to be successful. As a founder myself, I can say this is true on a number of levels. The most obvious is that it is crucial to have a wide range of perspectives – ideally representative of one’s user base, in particular – contributing to the design of products and communities.

But in addition to this, consider that many demographics find themselves constantly underrepresented, undercompensated, and underpromoted. Many would argue that companies have a moral obligation to right this wrong for the sake of equality in our broader society. (This point has been made far more eloquently by others than I could do, so I’m not going to rehash those ideas here, though I do agree with them.) But even if I felt no moral obligation to improve society in this way, I’d quite frankly still consider it crucial to invest in making each job opening available on equal terms to as broad a range of individuals as possible, simply for economic reasons. 

Specifically, not only is a wider funnel better by definition, but you’re actually more likely to find extremely competent members of historically disadvantaged groups. This is true because someone with less privilege will, by definition, have had to work harder, to get to the same place, than someone facing less discrimination – so two candidates who have equal skills today may actually be showing evidence of different amounts of dedication. What’s more, disadvantaged individuals are likely to have been passed over by biased folks for jobs in the past (this is morally disappointing but nonetheless true), while skilled people who are impacted by fewer biases will have long since found an employer ready to snatch them up. This gives you the opportunity to hire great people while simultaneously helping, in a small way, to reduce overall the impact of systemic discrimination.

Putting all of this together, when Carter and I founded Modulate, we made a conscious decision to educate ourselves and put in as much effort as necessary to ensure our team grew to reflect the diversity of the talented individuals available out there in the world.

But quite frankly, “educating ourselves” was more difficult than expected – and likely not for the reasons you think. There’s lots of great literature out there making the case that diversity is important, and there’s even some content explaining various reasons why you might be having trouble building a diverse team. But most of these explanations are things like “candidates from diverse backgrounds are on the lookout for red flags, so will be put significantly at ease to see folks already on the team from a wide range of demographics.” In other words, build a diverse team by already having a diverse team! This obviously isn’t bad advice, but it’s also not the most immediately actionable suggestion. What’s more, Carter and I happen to be white men (also cis-, though that’s less immediately apparent based on a photo or quick meeting.) So from the very beginning, we found ourselves in a position where we, in a sense, had to dig ourselves out of a hole with respect to diversity – while at the same time, our first few hires had to be found urgently, which gave us minimal freedom to explore nearly as many candidates and strategies as we would have liked.

There’s no magic answer for how to bridge this gap. It may be tempting to follow the standard corporate D&I checklist – doing visible but easy things like reviewing job postings for offensive or off putting language, balancing the set of interviewers to reduce implicit bias, auditing offer packages to ensure equality, etc. All of these things surely help, but I strongly doubt any combination of them is sufficient. (Though that doesn’t make them bad, and Modulate certainly does implement these ideas too – they just aren’t our primary focus here.) The bottom line is that trying to measure how much a company values and respects diversity by counting how many of these interventions have been instituted is roughly the equivalent of measuring one’s intelligence based on how quickly they solve the Rubik’s Cube. Yes, there may be some correlation, but you’re clearly not actually measuring what you wanted to – and in fact many people can simply execute the specific steps to solve the Rubik’s Cube without any understanding, and thus “pass” as more intelligent according to your measurement. 

Similarly, a company which doesn’t actually have a culture of respecting diversity could still institute changes like watching the language in their job posting – and many do, whether explicitly out of a desire to appear more welcoming than they are, or simply because they are trying to gather as many candidates as possible without realizing their culture won’t be welcoming to them all. Thus, telling yourself that your company is respectful of diversity simply because you instituted these interventions is ultimately a red herring. Taking a bad culture and forcing them through those steps is the equivalent of teaching a raccoon to solve a Rubik’s Cube. It might look impressive, but it’s just not a reliable signal of whether the truly important things are actually happening behind the scenes.

So given that we do care about building a diverse and representative team, rather than just going through the motions to claim we’ve done all you can, what have we been focusing on instead? Well, what we realized is that the only way to build the kind of community we wanted was to start with the stuff that’s nearly impossible to measure. Before you concern yourself with how you look to the outside, you have to start from the inside and build a true culture of respect.

What do I mean by this? Well, in my eyes, a culture of respect has a few key elements: values, acknowledgement, and flexibility.

Values

To start, any community needs a set of shared values. In fact, a community is defined by its values (and its processes which strive to incarnate those values.) So the most crucial thing is to make sure you maintain the ability to define what those values are. Just saying “respect for everyone is one of our core values” doesn’t make it so. Your community’s values are determined by the actual sentiments which are shared by your team members – so if you fail to enforce your core values, they are reduced to mere words. (See e.g. almost every company that talks about “constant feedback” being a core value, but then hires managers who chafe at any possible pushback.)

One of Modulate’s core culture pillars is indeed “respect for everyone,” but more importantly, we truly strive to make that a reality, and are willing to make sacrifices – whether in terms of time spent on other initiatives, candidates who we might otherwise hire, or anything else – in order to make sure that Respect remains a core of how we operate.

It’s important to call out that there are very few people in the world who actively disagree with Respect being a good value to hold. (How many people would explicitly suggest that a culture of being disrespectful to everyone would be better?) Instead, the difficulty is that Respect means different things to different people. Some people put the burden of Respect entirely on the listener – “you’re not allowed to be offended because it wasn’t my intention to offend you.” Others put it entirely on the speaker – “your intent doesn’t matter whatsoever, because I perceive your language or attitude to be offensive, even if you had no idea it could be interpreted that way.” At Modulate, we reject both of these interpretations, in favor of a mathematically impossible third option – putting the responsibility entirely on both individuals. 

Let me be clear, though, that when I say the overall responsibility is on both people, that doesn’t mean the two individuals share the same specific responsibilities. In any given conversation in which someone is sharing that they feel offended, maligned, ignored, or otherwise disrespected, you’ll at minimum have that Speaker, and someone else in the conversation whose job is to listen and learn (who I will call the Listener.) Of course, in any given conversation, these roles might swap multiple times, as both individuals share their perspectives in turn.

Let’s discuss the responsibility of the Listener first. The Speaker will understandably fear they are putting themselves on the line for raising this feedback in the first place – after all, it’s easy to imagine the Listener becoming defensive or perceiving the feedback as an accusation of malice. What’s more, many folks – and disproportionately, those who already face large amounts of discrimination – will find themselves needing to give this kind of feedback especially frequently, because, unfortunately, their perspective will be less familiar to many of their teammates. But it’s hardly fair for someone who is already at a disadvantage to shoulder the additional burden of educating their teammates. As such, the core of the Listener’s job is to do all they reasonably can in order to understand the Speaker’s perspective. This applies both during the conversation and afterwards – so if a Speaker doesn’t feel up for walking you through everything about their experiences, that’s not license to ignore them! It just means you need to do some research on your own to fill in the blanks.

That said, it’s also true that a Listener who is receiving feedback – especially when they are being told that something they did offended someone – will feel an impulse to defend themselves. Ideally, it would be possible to tell someone that their actions had bad outcomes without them taking personal offense. But unfortunately, there do exist people who attempt to make personal accusations based on even a single mistake, regardless of the actual thought process used. As such, it’s understandable, though regrettable, that most Listeners will feel on edge when receiving this kind of feedback. So the Speaker needs to do all they reasonably can to give the Listener the tools they need to hear and engage with the feedback as intended. This means making an effort to ensure that the Listener knows they aren’t being attacked or insulted, and sometimes it means sharing more context from your perspective to help them understand parts of your perspective which might be especially unintuitive to them. Ultimately, unless the Speaker believes the Listener acted out of genuine malice, then the natural conclusion should be that it wasn’t obvious to the Listener that their behavior was bad, or else they would have behaved differently. So if a Listener isn’t changing their behavior in the way you hoped, we request that you consider the possibility that they’re still in the middle of the process of improving themselves before you condemn them as malicious, lazy, or otherwise uncaring. 

(Of course, it should hopefully go without saying that if your colleague refuses to engage with your feedback or attempts to condemn you without trying to understand your thinking, then they are breaching this good faith assumption – and deserve to be reprimanded or even fired if there’s sufficient evidence of a pattern. In other words, we’re not trying to say you can never decide someone is not worth the effort to educate or listen to – we just think we end up with a better culture if we first spend the additional effort of ruling out explanations like missing context, differences in expectations or culture, etc before condemning anyone.)

This awareness of imperfections leads naturally to the next idea at the core of building a culture of respect – the concept of acknowledgement.

Acknowledgement

With acknowledgement, your job as a leader is to explicitly, repeatedly, and loudly admit the limits of your own perspective. This is not some kind of ritual self-flagellation, as I’ve heard many detractors claim, and I’m not saying you need to apologize for those limits – every single person in the world has a horridly limited perspective compared to the entire world. In fact, the point of emphasizing your weakness is not to demean yourself, but rather is specifically to help emphasize that having a limited perspective is not a failure. If people feel they will be personally blamed for any gaps in their understanding, they will attempt to hide the evidence of this limitation, or even worse, become defensive and refuse to engage with the idea of these limits. But if you can firmly establish that such gaps showing up from time to time is inevitable, then learning about your limits becomes joyful – it’s now an opportunity to do better in a way that would have been firmly impossible on your own. This is one of those moments when the group becomes much more than the mere sum of its parts, because those parts can learn from and improve each other.

Speaking for myself as a white man, I don’t feel that my demographics make me a bad person – but I do recognize that my intuition is inevitably going to differ from that of my colleagues. What’s more, for both historical and intentionally discriminatory reasons, business is dominated by folks from similar demographics to my own – meaning I frequently encounter systems, ideas, and people who behave in ways which line up most easily with my own biases. I acknowledge that this introduces a serious risk that I could start subconsciously feeling that this “white male perspective” is in some sense more “true” or more “natural” than others’s perspectives. This is why I make a conscious effort to educate myself about other perspectives, as well as to read history, which can be a powerful tool to reveal how things I take for granted as ‘the way things are’ were actually the result of discrimination from long ago that is now baked into our culture in hard-to-extricate ways. My intent isn’t exactly to become an expert here – as I said, nobody can possibly understand every other possible perspective. Rather, my goal is to constantly acknowledge, both to myself and in conversations with others, the ways in which my experiences might differ from others’, in order to more frequently catch myself when I’m making subconscious assumptions which are hurtful, exclusionary, or otherwise dismissive of others.

To better understand how Modulate approaches this as a company, we can talk specifically about the ongoing push for racial equality and reduced (and ideally, completely removed) police malfeasance – a movement which really began to scale up after the horrible, malicious, and unjust treatment and subsequent death of George Floyd. A few days after this incident was Modulate’s regular monthly all-hands meeting, so Carter and I agreed it was essential to take time during this meeting to acknowledge this atrocity, as well as the broader movement. In leading that conversation, though, we were quite careful with our language. In particular, we unequivocally condemned the actions of police towards George Floyd, and noted the myriad ways in which our current system fails to live up to the ideal of an equal and just society. But we were careful not to tell anyone how they should feel about any of this. Carter and I each have our own emotional responses to these circumstances, colored by our gender, age, race, ethnicity, upbringing, and no doubt thousands of other things. Others may well have different perspectives – perhaps they’ve been subject to police violence directly, or on the flip side perhaps they have a friend or relative who is among the (wildly insufficient, but still large) number of genuinely well-intentioned cops trying their best to navigate these complicated issues. Carter and I don’t see our job as founders to establish “one right way to feel” for all members of the Modulate team – rather, our goal was to center the team around our shared value of Respect as discussed earlier, while reinforcing that there’s room for each individual to, in their own unique way, reflect on what that value means to them and explore ways in which they or we might not be meeting the bar, so that we can all grow together.

I should also note that one part of acknowledgement, much like in the practice of trigger warnings, is to recognize that some topics might be emotionally laden for individuals to the point of making it difficult, unpleasant, or offensive to force them into those conversations. So after laying out our thinking, we intentionally chose not to mandate any specific team discussion, but rather trusted that each team member had good intentions and would take our cue to reflect for themselves. Some of them then chose to connect with other individuals for more detailed discussions, while others focused on taking some time back to reflect for themselves, or on reading to better understand alternate viewpoints without imposing on their colleagues’ time and mental energy. Carter and I made sure to make ourselves available for further discussion as well – and most importantly, continued to emphasize, as mentioned earlier, ways in which we are willing to make sacrifices in other areas in order to uphold the value of Respect.

I recognize that this approach may still sound a bit less emphatic/definitive than a situation as dire as this perhaps deserves, but I can attest that I had many individuals from the team actively pull me aside after this discussion to thank me both for addressing this topic but also giving them enough freedom to engage with it on their own terms. Which leads us to the final piece of a culture of respect – flexibility.

Flexibility

Different people can have different sets of biases, priors, expectations, ways of thinking, and emotional responses, even while sharing the same core set of values. This is a relatively obvious claim to many, yet it has a corollary which I unfortunately see rarely put into practice. Which is that those different people will have different optimal ways to engage with any new situation, stimulus, or idea.

For an overly contrived analogy, consider something less politically heated, such as trying to teach everyone in the world who “Batman” is. You might attempt to solve this by writing a well-researched, thoughtful piece explaining all of the necessary background, which your neighbor reads and reports finding great value in. The naive thought would then be “great, I should tell everyone in the world to read this, and then they’ll all understand Batman.” But there are some serious issues with this approach.

Firstly, some people don’t speak English. Others might be blind, or lack the ability to read. So you’re already going to miss a large chunk of people. Then you realize that the idea of a vigilante superhero is deeply rooted in American culture – other communities which rely more on values of conformity and unity may take different lessons from Batman’s actions. In addition, the premise of Batman is that bats are scary – will cultures which have never seen bats, or which engage with bats regularly, feel the same way? Etc etc.

The point is that there is no single “correct” explanation of any suitably complicated topic, especially one as steeped in culture as racial bias. There might be correct conclusions, but even then, it should be taken for granted that different people will find different paths to those conclusions – and that demanding people take the conclusions on faith without having found a path that makes sense to them will lead to future misunderstandings as well as generally reducing the social cohesion of the team.

And this isn’t just true when talking about educating someone! It’s also true in terms of the best actions to take. “Respectfulness” is not a property intrinsic to an interaction or behavior. “Respectfulness” can only be determined by the participants of the conversation. So rather than demanding everyone act, think, or learn in a way that seems respectful to you, you should be focusing on equipping your team with the tools they need to learn what their teammates will consider respectful, as well as the infrastructure for honest discussion when an interaction goes poorly or comes across as offensive.

Modulate attempts to offer this flexibility through a variety of paths. First, everyone on the team completes a User Guide, which helps us learn about how to engage with each other in a scalable way while minimizing risk of major offenses. (It also humanizes your colleagues, helping you appreciate that a lapse in respect might be a consequence of unawareness or accident rather than malice, which makes it easier for everyone to acknowledge the failure and find a way to avoid it moving forward.) This contributes to a constant element of our culture in which we actively ask people to recognize ways in which their perspectives or approaches may differ from the norm, and Carter and I endeavor to “show, not tell” how to conduct that kind of learning process during one-on-ones as we learn about our own team.

Looking at current events for a bit more detail, we certainly strove to offer flexibility in how people responded to the complicated questions America is grappling with today. But perhaps a more concrete example of our approach would be to look at Juneteenth. We made sure to acknowledge the significance of Juneteenth in advance, and as always opened up communications for members of our team to reach out if they had thoughts they wished to discuss with us, or recommendations for how we could better as a community engage with the day. But we also didn’t mandate how people spend their Juneteenth, instead leaving it up to each team member to find the right strategies for them. Some joined parties or events meant to celebrate and reinforce our shared values as citizens, even while acknowledging the dreadful ways we sometimes fail to live up to them. Others chose to take the day for quiet reflection or to educate themselves. I know of at least one individual who set the entire month of June as a month for re-educating themselves, spending an hour each day, and found it better for their mental health to treat Juneteenth the same, rather than escalating their engagement further and potentially wearing themselves out too early.

None of these approaches is wrong, or bad, or even better or worse than others. They are just different paths, starting from different places, towards the same end goal – and I’m glad that we’ve created a culture and hired a team where the trust we place in giving them that autonomy is used well.


Of course, there’s a final piece of the puzzle here, which I hinted at earlier – a culture of respect can only be achieved if everyone truly shares the core value in their heart of hearts. If they do, acknowledging their differences and providing them flexibility is an incredibly empowering approach which has resulted in us receiving a great deal of positive feedback from our team (both on the process and the end results.) But if they don’t, that autonomy will simply result in inaction (at best.) So it’s absolutely crucial to constantly be learning more about the team you’ve put together – and if you find that someone isn’t a fit with your core values, getting rid of them proactively and calling out explicitly why you’re doing so. Identifying whether someone has a different set of values from you, rather than simply having a different way of processing information or ideas, is not an easy task, and I can’t provide any brilliant tricks or tips to differentiate the two. But it’s nonetheless important, and perhaps is even one of the most essential ineffable qualities of any leader to be able to spot the difference.

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