With a recessive period upon us, we’ve witnessed a growing trend of corporate leaders (particularly in the tech industry) embracing “bossism”: a leadership style that emphasizes a top-down approach to management.
Sadly, that means the first programs on the chopping block are viewed as the nice-to-haves, including the DEI initiatives that many pledged to uphold following George Floyd’s murder. It also means that the people these programs were aimed at supporting are also at risk, at a time when employees and employers need inclusion-focused programs the most.
While those who practice bossism would claim to favor the bottom line, they do so at the expense of the people who are responsible for creating the bottom line in the first place.
In today’s episode, we’ll share the reasons why we can’t undo progress on DEI with the likes of bossism in Big Tech, including:
- Why investing in DEI supports teams during times of change and uncertainty
- Why an inclusive workplace supports post-layoff survivors’ productivity and morale
- Why ongoing DEI initiatives can support today’s and tomorrow’s teams
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
As we enter a recessive period, we've been witnessing a growing trend of corporate leaders, particularly in the tech industry, embracing “bossism”: which is a leadership style that emphasizes control, dominance, a top-down approach to management, and leaning into a power-over mechanism of leadership. But will bosses and waves of layoffs and that aggressive style of leadership work in the long run? And how will that affect the progress that we've made on diversity and inclusion since 2020?
I'm Kay Fabella and I'm a DEI consultant for remote teams. And I'm also your host of the Inclusion in Progress podcast, where you will get research-backed industry insights into the future of work, and practical “how to’s” for Equity and Inclusion. I also lead a remote team and work with clients across EMEA, APAC and the Americas. Which means that you'll get a global perspective on how companies are supporting their distributed teams, building workplaces that work for everyone.
So in this episode of Inclusion in Progress, we're going to discuss the rise of bossism in Big Tech, why we're seeing mass layoffs, and why those are detrimental to equity and inclusion for teams in the long run. And what companies can do instead to navigate times of economic uncertainty.
Now, if you are a long term listener and you're digging what we're throwing down on this podcast, please make sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app, whether that's Spotify or iTunes or something else. And while you're there, if you consider leaving us a review, we'd really appreciate it because it gets this content in front of equity-minded leaders in the workplace, like you, who are looking for ways to take these practices forward to their teams and beyond.
Bossism is also, it seems like, a really wild pendulum swing the other direction away from Silicon Valley's long standing focus on employee well-being and morale, particularly over the last two decades. Especially with the renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion – or DEI – that many pledged to uphold following the brutal murder of George Floyd in 2020.
A recent opinion piece in The New York Times called “The Era of Happy Tech Workers Is Over” claimed Silicon Valley, “with its radically transparent company cultures, empowered employees, flat hierarchies, and rarefied perks… is quickly disappearing and unlikely to return.”
The author argues that due to the economic environment, executives must now prioritize profitability, “sometimes at the expense of long-held organizational beliefs.”
Not only does that seem, from our opinion as Team IIP, like a radical return to all of the things that we've seen companies say that they were going against in the last few years… it's also a really disorienting whiplash effect for all of the people who have really invested in and pushed for DEI within organizations. But sadly, it also means when companies try to lean into this so-called bossism, the first programs to go – or the ones that are on the chopping block – are those that are viewed as the so-called “nice to haves”, such as flexible working arrangements, employee benefits package, is talent development, and – of course – DEI initiatives.
Unfortunately, this isn't something we haven't seen before. It also means that the people that these programs were aimed at supporting are also at risk at a time when employees and employers need workplace culture and inclusion-focused programs the most.
Now, at Inclusion in Progress, we've already started to witness these shifts with client partners in the tech industry, both within the United States and outside of Silicon Valley. Our in-house colleagues who have been leading DEI in tech— who hired en masse to appease outraged employees and stakeholders and investors in June 2020 — have watched their teams either be significantly downsized or, sadly, have also been made redundant themselves. The diversity programs and inclusion initiatives that they're leaving behind are going to be remaining on pause until further notice.
So why the appeal of bossism?
Well, maybe leaders are tempted to increase their power and control over teams who have been working remotely over the last three years. Maybe leaders view the economic uncertainty as an excuse to cut costs, let go of low performers, and – in an attempt to streamline operation – they use the focus on the bottomline as the way to really just let go [of] anything that they don't think is necessary. Or maybe leaders are drawn to that more authoritarian management style a la Elon Musk and Wolf of Wall Street which, again, feels like a wartime CEO archetype that many of them have learned, been socialized in, and maybe – on some subconscious level – feel like they have to emulate. But while those who support bossism would claim that they're favoring the bottomline and it's overall better for the health of the company in the long term, they're implementing bossism strategies at the expense of the people who are responsible for creating that bottomline in the first place.
Unfortunately, in times of corporate fiscal belt tightening, like what we're seeing now, DEI programs and workplace culture programs can take a backseat. It also means, again, that many of the first people to go are either those who were leading these programs or those who would most benefit from these initiatives, such as women and people of color, who tech companies have focused on and invested heavily in recruiting during their push to increase diverse representation.
So in today's episode, we'll be discussing the reasons why now more than ever, especially with turbulent times and economic uncertainty, it's important for companies to prioritize DEI efforts over bossism.
So let's dive in!
The first thing to keep in mind is that diverse teams – and we know this from many studies – are more resilient during times of change and uncertainty. A team with a wide range of perspectives and experiences is better equipped to help your organization adapt to volatile and changing market conditions, and also to find new solutions to complex problems. We know this can be especially important during a recessive period when companies are looking to find ways to cut costs and increase efficiency without sacrificing quality or innovation.
A 2021 study analyzed the correlation between S&P 500 board members diversity and their performance before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. That study found a 9%-point increase in the likelihood of positive year-over-year revenue growth in 2020, and an increase in company revenue for the more diverse companies compared to the less diverse ones. While all 500 companies in the S&P experienced a lower revenue due to the pandemic, their year-over-year revenue grew overall by $58 billion dollars for the companies with more diverse representation on their boards, versus a $283 billion job for the less diverse boards. Leading the report to conclude that boards with multi-dimensional diversity experience less downside and even revenue growth throughout the pandemic. (Take that Wall Street Journal!)
Without the perspectives of your best people at the table, and the workplace culture strategies that provide psychological safety for them to be willing to share those perspectives, your organization risks having a very narrow and myopic view that hinders your ability to navigate turbulent times effectively.
The second thing to consider is that inclusive workplace initiatives will support the people who have survived those layoffs, who we need at the table to continue to stay engaged, to stay productive, and to have high morale. Now, many of the employees who've been laid off, we've seen sharing their experiences on social media. Unfortunately, we've seen those layoffs happen in waves. So we see people extending their hands and saying, “Hey, I was a victim of this layoff.” They're being celebrated as being vulnerable. They're receiving support from others in their network, who are also going through similar experiences.
But what we noticed that's really interesting is that we don't tend to hear from the post-layoff survivors, The people that were left behind in workplaces after those layoffs happened. Maybe they feel they don't have the right to complain when they're thinking about the fate of their colleagues, maybe they're nervous to discuss what's happening internally because they really do need to hold on to the economic stability of a job in this market... But the employees who are allowed to remain in their roles – the ones who are left behind – are also suffering from a kind of Survivor's Guilt. And this is something we've heard from client partners and teams that we've spoken to in the last few months. Many are left wondering why they were the “Chosen Ones”. (Yes, that is a Neo-Matrix reference.) Maybe they are feeling a mixture of complicated emotions, not just relief. Because a survivor's guilt like this, that we've seen and have studied within organizational psychology, is Workplace Survivor Syndrome, that all of these survivors of layoffs are currently undergoing or experiencing.
And we also have to remember that for post-layoff survivors, there's a huge amount of trust that's going to be lost in both their employer and their leaders. And, depending on how layoffs were announced and how they were implemented, maybe that trust has been broken forever. The survivors of layoffs may also fear being next to lose their job if companies have announced that they're going to be running through layoffs in stages. Maybe their sense of security will be compromised once they've had to say goodbye to their friends and colleagues. Workplace Survivor Syndrome also compromises your remaining team members’ sense of psychological safety, which again can feel like that whiplash we were speaking of earlier, when organizations were very publicly touting their commitment to DEI over the last three years.
And so we know that when an employee doesn't feel like they're safe to do their best work, whether that's due to exclusionary behavior, or harassment, or something like Workplace Survivor Syndrome, as we've discussed, studies show that they may deal with consequences ranging from overwhelming exhaustion, to feelings of cynicism, detachment, and of course, decreased effectiveness in their role. And when you think about the trauma that they may be facing after watching a mass layoff, like what we've witnessed in the tech industry since the start of really the end of 2022 and into 2023 when we're recording this, you've got like a perfect storm for these remaining team members. You've got a decrease in psychological safety that's absolutely guaranteed, plus distrust, plus disillusionment with their employer.
So, again, investing in a DEI initiative is not a nice-to-have when you're worried about the people who are left behind in your organization after an organizational restructure. If it's not dealt with humanely and intentionally, all the consequences we listed will affect your remaining employees morale, engagement, and productivity. Investing in DEI initiatives aimed at corporate culture, well-being, inclusion, and psychological safety will help your remaining employees to keep your company afloat during a recessive period.
Finally, ongoing DEI initiatives can support today's and tomorrow's teams. Now in 2022, we supported one of our US-based client partners in the tech industry with piloting and relaunching an enterprise-wide sponsorship program for professionals from historically excluded groups to build a more diverse succession pipeline and demonstrate their ongoing commitment to DEI for current and future talent.
Like many tech companies, our client identified that their women and BIPOC – that is Black, Indigenous and People of Color – professionals were underrepresented in leadership positions. They also found that those employees were more likely to leave due to systemic bias and non-inclusive behaviors. So they committed internal resources, they achieved buy-in from stakeholders, they partnered with providers, like our Inclusion in Progress team, to help them bridge that gap. And it's really cool to see that, not only are they scaling their sponsorship program globally in 2023 in spite of the economic uncertainty, but they're also continuing to prioritize similar DEI training initiatives for their global workforce.
Now, our post pandemic workforce is not only aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, they consider it non-negotiable. This is especially true for Gen Z professionals who hail from a more racially, ethnically, and gender-diverse group than their predecessors. We know, according to the latest research from the Pew Research Center, that Gen Z continues to hold high expectations of their employers for DEI beyond just racial or ethnic identity, including but, of course, not limited to: LGBTQIA} rights, neurodiversity, accessibility, native language, and more. Gen Zers are also keen on having access to pathways for professional advancement, expect flexible working arrangements from their employers, and will also choose whether or not to stay at a company based on if they see representation of women and People of Color and other underrepresented roles in leadership, which all fall – Surprise, surprise! – under DEI. This is also a group, as we know, that is not afraid of making their voices heard and are going to continue to enter the workplace en masse, as demonstrated in how they led the Quiet Quitting movement in March of last year. Which is why, again, companies must continue to invest in DEI if they hope to remain employers of choice beyond this recessive period.
Every storm comes to an end, right? And on the other side of that, companies that failed to prioritize DEI for employees during turbulent times risk being seen as either out of touch or even discriminatory, which can compromise their reputation and make it harder for them to attract customers and investors.
At Inclusion in Progress, we've supported tech companies with aligning their DEI initiatives with business-critical objectives, deepening their capacity to understand and address DEI issues facing their globally distributed teams, and helping our partners communicate their commitments both internally and externally.
To that end, we encourage the companies that we work with not to see DEI as a so-called finished product, but rather as a work in progress. The same as we see every new app launched as a prototype, when user feedback helps inform improvements and updates, tech firms and companies at large have the opportunity to apply that same mindset to troubleshooting the psychological safety of their people.
Now, if we roll them back to an earlier version of leadership that's definitely buggy, rooted in bossism, and this idea of a leader pushing their power over their employees, it's going to undo all the progress you made and all those versions that you've gotten to in your organization. And employees are not just watching what you do today, but they will take note of how you chose to lead when the recessive period comes to an end.
So there you have it: the rise of bossism in Big Tech, why mass layoffs are detrimental to equity and inclusion for teams in the long run, and what companies can do instead to navigate times of economic uncertainty.
Now, at Inclusion in Progress, we've always recognized the need to investigate barriers to psychological safety at the Individual, Behavioral, and Organizational levels while navigating the reality of our post-pandemic distributed world. Because we know that identifying how to remove those barriers allows organizations to create work cultures where employees are able to contribute their best ideas without fear of judgment or exclusion, ensuring an engaged, productive, and equitable work environment no matter where employees choose to work from.
We also know that the last three years have been challenging for every organization to navigate, and it's important to continue providing resources that set you and your teams up for success.
So if you'd like to learn how we can support you with creating inclusive distributed work strategies in 2023 that set your organization up for success through this recessive period and beyond, you can email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. To book a free, no pressure consultation call with our team.
As always, thank you so much for listening. Thank you for continuing to engage in this conversation even when it doesn't feel easy or popular. And thank you for sharing these episodes with others. And we'll see you next time on Inclusion in Progress!