Why Don’t We Change?

In July, Ashton Kutcher attempted to start a dialogue about gender equality in the workplace and was roundly savaged for his trouble:

  • “This is grossly offensive”, noted one person.
  • Joelle Emerson, the founder and CEO of Paradigm tweeted, “Yikes. These are definitely *not* the right questions. Most rely on flawed assumptions and perpetuate problematic myths.”
  • Someone else commented, “Aston [sic], you embarrass yourself for a very good reason. Your questions tell me more (again) about how you perceive women, not how women are! Please pull together the correct questions, and a dialogue that deals with the issue, instead of reiterating the sexist view in the workplace will begin to heal us.”

While not addressing the specifics of Kutcher’s comments, I’m troubled by the fact that people are permitted less and less to posit ideas or do new things without being trashed for their trouble. One of the fundamental rules I learned many years ago about brainstorming sessions — the goal of which is to foster an environment in which people are encouraged to present ideas to help solve problems — is never to criticize ideas as they’re presented. It’s fine to present alternative or contradictory ideas, but criticizing the brainstormer is antithetical to the ultimate goal of solving the problem because it discourages people from trying to be innovative. Sadly, in our hyper-politically correct environment, we are moving ever further away from the ideal of encouraging people to be innovative or disrupting the status quo. And without that kind of disruption and a culture that supports it, we just can’t solve our problems.

This is also the case for ideas in the workplace that have nothing to do with third-rail issues like politics, gender equality or immigration. Early in my career I did not have a computer on my desk and didn’t have email (the dinosaurs had just recently gone extinct and we just weren’t as technologically savvy in those days). The first company (a leading market research and consulting firm)  I worked for out of university used a Wang word processing system and we were expected to dictate our reports into a handheld recorder, hand the tapes to the word processing staff, and wait for the printouts to appear on our desks. When I opted to do my own word processing, I was severely criticized by not only the word processing staff, but even made the company president quite upset. Two years later, all of the analyst staff were expected to do their own word processing.

If you’re a change agent, and if Vendor X is firmly entrenched in your enterprise and you suggest migrating to Vendor Y that offers a better user experience, you might be shut down without getting a hearing about the merits of your suggestion. Perhaps you want to deploy a social network that allows people to share information with the goal of increasing employee engagement, but management believes that people surfing the web and sharing articles with others is a waste of time — be prepared for a rough ride in many organizations. The good news for change agents in those types of organizations is that you probably won’t be working for that company for very long.

The bottom line is that we need to be open to new ideas, be polite to those who share them, and be willing to change. Innovative people and companies do that — those who orbit the status quo don’t.