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The problem with being values-driven
Working at tech companies, you might notice a great deal of discussion from companies about their “values” — they might describe themselves as “values-driven.” It’s not clear to me if this is as extensive in other industries, but it seems very pervasive in tech, in particular, with great pride attached to being “values-driven.”
It’s difficult for me to say when this started, as I’m confident this tendency was not always the case in the professional world. Nonetheless, some may enjoy this tendency, while others may not — supporters may say that upfronting company values can help them determine if the company aligns with their own, and gives them signal about whether they’d want to work there. Others may say it’s “just marketing,” and perhaps feel it’s “corny,” and that they don’t believe those proclamations “really mean anything,” in the grand scheme of things.
I can see arguments for both positions and, ultimately, I’m sure this is just one of those things that’s a matter of personal preference. That said, I do think that, while stating values in one’s marketing material online can be said to have benefits, I do think there are some challenges (as they say) that may arise.
Trouble in one’s day-to-day
I’ve turned this topic over in my mind intermittently across my years of working at tech companies. In the best case scenario, I think values can be used as shorthands in conversations to move discussion along — for instance, one can imagine a situation like:
It sounds like we’re pretty mixed about this decision — why don’t we just Disagree & Commit and revise as needed?
But I think that there can be said to be a flipside to this. To give the reader some additional context: recently, I came across an opinion piece that touched on this very same concern, and I felt in good company. In Pooya Amini’s Left Amazon after 7.5+ years; Here is my honest review., he writes:
In the annual peer review, you have to choose at least one leadership principle as an area for the improvement. Managers are always equipped with a large selection of contradictory-like principles if they want to use them against an employee. For instance, if you deliver a feature under a very tight deadline (which naturally is delivered with limitation due to time pressure), a manager might say that you are good at delivering results and bias for action, while another can claim that you need improvement on “Insist on highest standards”.
I believe that a large number of cultural items can be deliberately misused…
In this anecdote, Pooya describes exactly the same problem I’ve noticed: since company values do not have clear definitions, they can be applied arbitrarily and used in ways that can support any position — even contradictory (or worse, adversarial) ones.
I’m sure we’ve all received feedback that, in retrospect, seemed more motivated by a personal or political affliction on the part of the giver, or that was generally lacking in rigor in some other way. Perhaps some of us have even levied these against others, ourselves. Regardless, one way one could insulate one’s criticisms from deserved scrutiny can be to argue that the target of the criticism displays behaviors that are “inconsistent with” any given company value. As we have seen above, those values can be molded to support any position — there’s something to be said about motivated reasoning here, where a famous adage may apply: “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Unfortunately, this also creates a situation where, if the receiver of the feedback were to question the rigor behind the claim, they may be castigated as “disagreeable,” “difficult,” or “in conflict with company values,” which can put one in a tough social situation — even if they have sincere cause to question. This, of course, resulting in a situation where there is no recourse for the receiver, and no avenue for truth to be discovered.
For my part, I recall one workplace over a single year where the reaction to the same behavior (having ambitious feature ideas for our software) was received extremely positively across the board and, in another, where it was received in a lukewarm manner from one individual. In the second case, one person felt that the ideas were ambitious, therefore definitionally not achievable, which, in their estimation, was not an example of “biasing towards action” (one of the company’s values at the time). In one place, “thinking big” and being willing to pull up one’s sleeves to do lots of work can be seen as entrepreneurial and, in another, seen as “too pie in the sky,” or “not actionable.”
If one were to ask me, I made those suggestions specifically because I felt they were achievable, so I would dispute and question the individual’s assessment. But it’s difficult to do that when a heavy-handed assertion like “company values” gets doled out — when an individual invokes the weight of the whole company behind an assertion, the receiver’s now on their back foot. (In these cases, it’s probably best to simply withhold one’s natural skepticism, anyway.)
To provide another anecdote, at one company, a manager remarked that “your design, everything, it’s perfect, I just want you to be more data-driven” (to the absolute best of my recollection, this quote is verbatim) — “data-driven” being a common, oft-unstated value in tech.
The problem is that the word “data” (or variations on it) can be thought-terminating, particularly when there isn’t any data to be driven by. In this particular case, it was well-known at the company (and on our specific team) that we didn’t have great reporting and analytics set up consistently, which was a mainstay complaint among leadership at the company, at large. Looking to get a second opinion, I visited a direct peer on my team concerning this assertion, who simply remarked: “what data?” Certainly, how might an IC be said to be (or not be) “data-driven,” therefore, if there simply isn’t any?
In this situation, the question naturally becomes: was this feedback made in a sincere manner? Or was this levied as a way to create standards that are definitionally impossible for the receiver to meet, perhaps in order to justify another deeply held position that the individual has?
I’ve seen this specific value (“data-driven”) used against others in ways that seem intellectually impossible to disprove, as well, and at other points in my career. To quote myself in Things I secretly wish designers would (please) stop saying:
Myself and another designer couldn’t agree on whether to put some new view in the product behind an icon button in the top nav, or a second tab. I didn’t have strong feelings about either option, … I could see an argument for either direction, but I didn’t think it was such a mission critical decision either way. In my view, these kinds of things can be resolved by first doing what we think is right and, if we believe it’s worth watching for, we can do A/B tests to watch how people respond to those two funnels against each other.
The designer asserted that putting this new view behind a tab would be “the most data-centric way” to do this … I asked what data the designer might have that would support the claim that the tabs approach would be “more data-centric” than a button. … [M]y hope was that the designer had some information that I did not.
However, from what I could tell, this was not a reference to some experiment the designer had exclusive knowledge of. This was actually an appeal to authority. Saying “the data” or “data-centric” can sometimes create an air of authority in the one saying it — when used with this intent, it can result in conversations being shut down.
What’s more, given that values (as seen in Pooya’s anecdote above) can be stretched in so many directions to accommodate seemingly contradictory feedback, I must admit that it does seem highly presumptuous (to me) to invoke “the company” and its “values.” In these contexts, there is a singular individual making a personal assessment about another — what might make one individual at the company a better avatar for the company’s values than another?
Another common value designers have is the value of “framing problems.” For the duration of my entire career, I have heard that this is an important thing to inherently value. I have not been able to change my own mind and agree that this is a value I should share. For my part, my perspective is that plain, simple, non-templatized language is best. Just describe a feature and what it does.
There is no special sauce here supported by some “framing” value. If one doesn’t agree that the feature is needed, this is completely fair and should be said. No matter how one “frames” something, no matter what wordsmithing one is to do, reality is all that matters: did one understand what was being said? Does one agree this work is important to commit to? One’s success should not be adjudicated based on whether one conforms to specific styles of speech (i.e., “framing”).
Values are amorphous by nature, and companies are comprised of sometimes hundreds of thousands of individuals. Speaking as an avatar for a company by invoking its stated values doesn’t feel like an inherently winning strategy, by my estimation.
Trouble in hiring
Apart from in one’s day-to-day, I’ve observed these issues I’ve crop up in hiring, as well. To quote myself in Innocent until proven guilty, and hireable until proven unhireable, I write:
I believe [there] is a problem: seemingly Olympic levels of nitpicking in tech hiring. … I have seen a great deal of this on the panels I’ve been on across many companies, and it’s been extremely hard to watch. People in my life have also confided in me about observing these tendencies [on their own panels], where they start to see colleagues get together and create “concerns” about candidates that seem completely disconnected from the evidence provided.
I’ve commonly seen this tendency supported by references to company values. For my part, these instances have not seemed to me to be done in good faith — they have appeared, to me, chiefly entirely spurious.
I believe that some of this occurs because people on hiring panels (as in other contexts) feel incentivized to drum up feedback to give, so as to seem engaged. In the words of a previous manager: “sometimes, people just feel like they have to have something to say.”
If one doesn’t have strong feedback to give, one can wonder if one appears dispassionate in the eyes of one’s peers, particularly in the face of a highly motivated and passionate one. When this occurs, panelists who would otherwise recommend a hire, or not really have any negative feedback, begin to agree with the highly motivated panelist, so as to seem as intelligent, attentive, and hardworking.
As a result, a whirlwind of what appears to be mostly “tinfoiling” and strange psychoanalysis of the candidate ensues. In my experience, it is not uncommon for company values to be deployed in these contexts as supporting arguments for one’s opinions.
Certainly, this is a reality of working for others that we all must contend with. But I have to wonder if values are helping more than they are hurting.
For my part, I do not recommend making assertions that rest on a company handbook but, rather, on truth — or one’s best estimation of it. Ideally, when one makes an assertion, — about anything, be it a colleague, or otherwise — one should be ready to defend it with evidence and reasoning, which one should always have. In lieu of this, for individuals who are motivated enough, company values can, unfortunately, become sources to bolster otherwise weak arguments that, held under the tiniest bit of scrutiny, fall utterly to pieces.