Right vs, Wrong
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Culture is Defined by the Worst Behavior Tolerated

I wish I could take credit for the line in the title. But, I can’t. It has, however, been rumbling around in my brain for the past couple of days since I heard John Amaechi say it on a recent episode of Adam Grant’s podcast “Worklife” (Go listen to the whole episode, it’s very thought-provoking)

In an episode about how to build an anti-racist workplace, this was the line that sort of stopped not only me, but Adam as well. And, I think it applies to much more than anti-racism. Here’s the relevant explanation:

John Amaechi (31:43):
So, I see the inclusion part of the work that I do as simply a facet of leadership and culture. The bias part comes in where it comes to culture because I think the culture is defined by the worst behavior tolerated.


Adam Grant (31:59):
Ooh. Ooh. Wait. That is brilliant! Say more about that.


John Amaechi (32:02):
The example I give is about littering. It is illegal, but it’s clearly okay because you’ve- you’ve looked outside, right? And the act of doing nothing is what tells everybody it’s okay. That’s what defines what is possible in this culture. People love to talk about the mode, the most common behavior is the thing that defines an organization. And it is not. The bad stuff you’re allowed to do while still existing in the organization tells you what the standard is. That tells you what the culture is all about.


John Amaechi (32:34):
All those talented but toxic people who can still wander through the virtual hallways of an organization unmolested. “I can just do what that bloke does” and it’s invariably a bloke, “And just be technically brilliant and a complete jerk. And I’ll still progress.” That’s what defines the culture. The worst behavior tolerated.

There is a lot to unpack here, because we see this impact in many ways, inside and outside of the workplace. Yes, we see it at work. I’ve probably been one of those guys who was technically really good at my job, but came across as a bit of a jerk at times because I haven’t always been the most socially adept human, but certainly when I think about my time in both the technology and legal world, I’ve seen plenty of examples of this. The law firm that touts it’s collegial culture, but has a partner who brings in clients who is also able to treat the firm’s staff with rudeness and contempt, or the highly successful sales guy who routinely makes inappropriate remarks to female coworkers, etc. It goes on, and every time it does, that is defining the culture. We also see it in our own personal relationships, when we tolerate being mistreated, it sets the tone for all of our relationships. We see it on social media, where it’s the lowest common denominator of behavior that goes unchallenged that defines the culture of the platform, and we see it in politics, whenever one party has members behaving poorly, and the official party still accepts them.

All of those things define the lower boundary, and once that is defined, that becomes the line for everyone. I saw this person over there do “x”, so “x” must be OK here. And that becomes a problem if “x” is somewhere you don’t want to be, because just like litter, once you’ve let it go, it gets a lot harder to punish it later, and a lot easier to push it even further. After all,  If “x” is OK, why is “x+1” so much worse that it needs to be punished? Or worse, why are some people seemingly allowed to do “x”, while others get punished?

Which brings to mind another issue. I’ve also been listening to a new podcast from Freakonomics Radio, Sudhir Break the Internet

In the first three episodes, Sudhir spends a lot of time talking about his work at Facebook and Twitter, and this same idea comes up often when it comes to content moderation. Essentially, how does a moderator decide when rudeness crosses over into unacceptable online behavior? By not thinking about this upfront, and making hard decisions about what is, and what isn’t, tolerated, the big tech companies are now left trying to figure out why spreading misinformation is wrong, but when it’s done by political leaders, it’s “newsworthy”, for example, and then letting it go for so long that when they finally ban someone from the platform, it seems a little arbitrary, right? Like why were QAnon supporters basically left alone until Jan 6, and then banned immediately? Is it because no one in Silicon Valley thought they were really a danger until well, they proved it? If so, why is that standard not applied to everyone? Why are some users suspended or banned for bullying other users, or making racist and sexist comments, but others are not. Where is the boundary, truly? By not deciding where the boundary should be, they’ve left it in the hands of mostly low-paid and overworked moderators to set it on a day by day, case by case, basis. That’s a recipe for disaster, which is clearly what content moderation has become on many of these platforms.

If you want your workplace to be better, you have to set that lower boundary somewhere, and stick to it. You have to understand that every time someone pushes beyond that, and does so without consequence, the boundary follows. If you want a diverse, inclusive workplace, that boundary had better be set above the line where anyone can act in a way counter to that. If you want a high-performing team, you need to set the boundary of how much low performance your people can get away with. Otherwise, you get more of what you do tolerate.

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