Google employs some of the smartest people in the world, working on some of the most advanced technology imaginable. For a long time, that combination made it one of the best places in the world to work. Google has long been legendary for both its perks as well as an egalitarian culture that encouraged employee feedback through access to top executives. 

In the last few years, however, that has changed. Not all of it--there's still plenty of free food and daycare and shuttle buses that will take you to and from work. But the culture has undoubtedly changed. 

In fact, The New York Times this week published an exhaustive piece about the change in culture at Google, focusing specifically on how the company has handled recent efforts by employees to affect change on a range of issues. While we don't have time to cover everything from that piece (seriously, it's 7,500 words), the discontent revealed highlights a growing and very real problem when it comes to Google's culture. And there are lessons for any founder or manager of people.

You solve a culture problem by engaging with your people. That seems to be one area Google hasn't yet mastered. In fact, you could argue it's an area Google falls quite short.

Google's headcount has doubled since 2015, which understandably means that there are far more people at the company, and every one of them brings a set of circumstances, beliefs, values, and concerns to work. At the same time, the company has changed the way it addresses those concerns and that has made some employees feel that they're no longer valued.

The discontent began to boil over in November of 2018 when 20,000 employees staged a walkout over a variety of concerns, including how the company was handling claims of sexual harassment. Then, this past November, I wrote about how Google was ending its long-standing all-company meeting.

And just this month, the company's head of people operations announced she would leave that position. Combine that with what the Times report describes as a "clamp-down" on any kind of internal dissent, and you have a perfect storm of both rising discontent within the company--especially with the way management handles that discontent.

The thing is, solving a people problem is different than solving a technology problem. You can engineer products and processes, but you can't engineer people. No one can expect to solve a culture problem with technology. In reality, technology doesn't fix culture, it only amplifies it.

You can only fix your culture problem by fixing the way you value and respect your people. That is, after all, what is broken at many companies. Solving that means engaging with employee concerns and really hearing their perspectives. It also means doing that in a way that intentionally seeks to address those concerns.

That's an important lesson for every entrepreneur. As your company grows and you add people, you'll encounter issues you hadn't anticipated. As you encounter, and hopefully overcome, those issues you'll have an opportunity to live out what you say you value. Ultimately--and this is especially true at a tech company--your people are your most valuable asset.  It shouldn't be this hard to treat them as such.

Published on: Feb 21, 2020
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