Improving teams by increasing inclusivity and reducing radicalization

Building Inclusivity

I'm sure you already have an expectation of where this post may go but I ask you to shelve any thoughts you may have and enter with a blank slate. 2020 was an interesting year for many due to global pandemic and the U.S. presidential elections. While I am American, I currently live in Europe and was able to witness some new perspectives for the first time. While I may allude to some politics and global events, this is really an article on personalities and not any statement on politics or political positions.

I want to start with inclusivity. I don't think anyone will say that inclusive teams are bad. Yet most companies don't provide an environment that promotes and celebrates inclusivity. It's no doubt that American politics are deeply divided. If you talk to people on the left and right, both sides will say they are "inclusive". A common trend among people on the left is that they will say they are inclusive due to accepting everyone no matter of lifestyle. They can respect different belief systems and don't for instance favor a religion and treat everyone equally. Thus, they then believe that they are inclusive people.  People on the right will say they are inclusive because it's what you do that matters and not who or what you define yourself as.

The real point is both sides are exclusive. How often do we see people on the left and right become angry at something the other side says? That underlying anger during communication is the root of exclusiveness. Being inclusive goes way beyond just having women and people of color at your workplace. So many companies right now are out there seeking these developers to balance their books from a racial and gender perspective. Yet companies that do this are going to see high churn among these segments. Why? They have never addressed their underlying exclusivity problems and even if they hire in these segments, the new employees will become disenfranchised and quickly leave.  

Inclusivity requires commitment from the company to the employee and the employee to the company. Being inclusive from the company perspective is fundamentally providing a safe space for ideas to be shared and critiqued without it being personal or shamed for having a perspective. For an employee, inclusivity comes from respecting and dialoging with your colleges and not falling into the natural order of cliques. A truly inclusive environment allows both sides to hold each other accountable to basic standards of respect and decency. Both sides need to accept and respond to criticism.

A companies humor is often a good indicator of the level of inclusivity it offers. The term "politically correct" has developed a negative connotation. A common critique that people on the right have of the left is that they are too politically correct and shouldn't have to moderate what we say. This was taken to the extreme during the Trump years. Often times the right would be offensive to annoy people on the left and provoke a reaction.

We need to care about how others perceive what we say to build an inclusive environment. This is basic respect for others. Jokes about sex and race can be quite funny. If made out of no intent of malice they are perhaps even harmless. But context matters. There is a difference in talking to a few friends that I have known for years and where we all know each other very well versus a company of loosely federated people. I know how my friends will take a certain piece of information. I do not know how everyone of my colleagues would interpret it. I don't know their personal experiences.

A litmus test to use when telling a joke is to think about saying it for real to a person it applies to. Would you roast fat people in front of a fat friend? For most people this is a no. Some would say "well my fat friend doesn't mind and it's just a trait and I'm just having fun". You can replace fat with race, sex, religion, tabs/spaces or anything else. These attitudes are foundational to exclusivity. They require the other person conforming to your experiences and desires and leads to pushing away people that don't. If someone objects to the humor they will be labeled a trouble maker, or sensitive, and pushed out of your circle and isolated. The company will look for all the reasons they are not fit for that role and push them out or make their life harder.  

Companies are often started by a group of friends, or at least a group of people who will become friends in the very early stages of the company. The humor and company culture will often become entrenched by this group of people. A common problem I often find is people that hire based on how well the person aligns with their ideas and not on how well the person can perform the job. When you look at percentage of women in the Fortune 500, it's low. Some on the left will say there is rampant discrimination and women have less of a chance and such. I personally think the reason is a bit more mundane. People just hire similar people to their own personality / gender / race often from unconscious bias and not maliciousness.

By the time a company grows to 15-20 or so this culture gets entrenched. The people that joined early are probably top tier positions and new hires are lower on the hierarchy. Any new feedback gets rejected because "it's just the way we are".

As leaders in companies, we need to aggressively weed out this behavior in our employees and managers through employee training or in extreme cases, removal. This goes double for startups trying to scale their teams quickly. Being exclusive limits your ability to hire. If your environment is hostile to women, you lose half the people you can hire. Throw in some minorities or races and now you only have access to a fraction of available talent. Go to the next level of not hiring a person who works in compiled languages because you use a scripting language and that available market shrinks to a very, very small set of people. If you do hire someone and they leave in under a year or two, you lost money. By the time you trained them on the system and they get familiar and start returning value, they are disenfranchised and you are out your recruiting fees and training time. In the U.S. it could be like flushing 100k or easily more down the toilet over and over again. Exclusivity leads to wasting money and poor team performance.

Inclusivity is about an environment of safety. Create an environment where people can say anything without fear of reprisal. This doesn't mean that they can be disrespectful. Everyone needs to shelve their feelings of shame, isolation, fear and insecurity. Everyone needs to accept that criticism is coming from a desire to improve and not tear down. Everyone needs to enter with an intent of not being malicious. Managers should be trained to recognize and root out true maliciousness. If you do these things, you will find your company naturally becomes diverse. You don't need to set up processes that discriminate to try to load up on your missing demographics. If you look at your company and find that the demographics are not reflective of the community, it is a good indicator that you are not truly creating an inclusive environment.

Reducing radicalization

Radicalization is one of the largest contributors to exclusive environments so I wanted to talk about it a bit separately. Almost everyone carries some degree of radicalization in their lives. This term often gets associated with "terrorists" and thus it might be repulsive to be told you are radicalized. In the U.S. I find some similarity with the word "racist". To be called racist is almost the worst insult possible because to the U.S. person they equate that to a vicious form of slavery. Yet these terms have a large range and nuance to them. A person could be radicalized on one topic and completely normal everywhere else.

These extreme reactions are themselves radicalization. It's hard to talk about racism when someone has such an extreme perspective on what racism is. The extreme perspective therefore shuts down all further conversation.

It's easy for developers to fall into a trap of radicalization. Do spaces or tabs have any impact on the quality of your application? No. Yet people die on these hills. A question to gauge this in interviews I have used in the past is to ask "Tell me about your opinions on jQuery". People that say it's old and should not be used anymore are the radicals. You then have a group of followers that will say it's old and not be used anymore but then be able to give some details about the pros and cons. These are the people that can see the pro's and con's but don't like conflict and hedge their opinions. Lastly are the people that simply answer the question with the various pro's and con's. These are your non radicalized leaders.

The list goes on of topics that people develop extreme opinions about. Scripted vs compiled, typed vs untyped, single quotes vs double quotes, kanban vs scrum vs waterfall. Waterfall into itself is practically an insult anymore even though it is how most companies work anyways.

When your developers hold radical opinions meetings become a mine field. Ideas get hidden because the person doesn't want to get attacked so they stay quiet instead of proposing their improvements and criticisms. An endless amount of technical solutions get shelved because someone on the team doesn't like that. Developing becomes a negotiation of what people will accept and not what works best for the problem. The words "that's the way we do things" becomes commonplace and any proposal to change is admonished. Your development grinds to a halt and compromised solutions due to radical opinions lower your final quality.

Other thoughts

I identified at least 2 (I am sure there are more) patterns I notice. Radicalization through inexperience and dismissal of ideas based on perceived hierarchies.

Radicalization creeps in as a junior developer. What happens is they will read an article on a topic, or better yet, see lots of references to something, and regard that as truth. Truth is highly dependent on context.

For instance, I will often tell early stage startups to avoid Javascript frameworks and SoA architecture. They don't really provide a major benefit to most companies out of the gate (if ever) and cost more to develop. Things like validations need to be duplicated from the front and back end etc leading to more time to deliver an equal product which directly results to a cost increase. This advice though is within the context of a company that does not have a large portion of funds and needs to get traction asap so getting a product out the door as fast and cheap as possible are the most important driving motivations.

Now, if you see enough of this, your takeaway may be Javascript frameworks are bad. Is this the case? No. If I was creating a startup and it was important to be able to run the app offline, like say an event check in app where wifi and cellular are spotty, then a javascript framework makes total sense and my normal recommendations go out the window. That said, the complexity does go up significantly. You have to deal with distributed state and then correct times and syncing etc. This complexity directly translates to increased costs but a developers goal should be to implement the best solution with the cheapest possible cost.

As authors, we should do a better job of putting our advice in context. I always take the line of how to ship as fast and low cost as possible. If your context is to scale to the extremes then this blog will not make you a hyper-scaler and has incorrect recommendations. I am quite familiar with a variety of hyper-scaling techniques but the reality is most companies don't need them and they just add complexity and distraction. Thus it's important define the values and confines of authors you read.

Positions in hierarchies play a major role in promoting exclusivity. I view people as people. I was lucky in my life to meet very successful and well known people. Many that have not met them will look up to them or perhaps even idolize these leaders. I see them as normal people like you and me. It's easy for early stage founders success to go their head. They get some initial validation through particularly series A funding and that indicates that they are right. They see their opinions as somehow having more weight than others. They think they are entrepreneurial geniuses just as the real work gets started. A CEO is no better than an IC. They are not worth more as humans because of their position on the career ladder. As leaders we need to have humility to our employees and make sure not to elevate ourselves in stature or knowledge. We must recognize we are just people prone to the same mistakes and errors as anyone else.

I've seen it so many times and it is such a large stumbling block to scaling companies. New employees ideas get written off because they seem non-sensical due to not hearing the employee out. They may hire an industry expert because of the reputation but doesn't listen to any of their advice. It becomes about finding people that validate their perspectives instead of finding people to expand the companies knowledge-base. If I charge 1000-1500 a day to a company and recommend something they often listen very intently and are willing to hear me out and understand. If I say the same thing as an employee at a much more favorable rate, the conversation is often dismissed outright by superiors. The idea is the same but the perceived value changes. When I get viewed as a subordinate, the idea is much easier to dismiss even if it's airtight. If I am viewed as an expert, the idea is lent serious consideration and at least a serious level of respect.

People are generally roughly equally intelligent. It's hard for many, particularly those on the smarter end of the spectrum, to accept there is no big difference between people. You may know every in and out of a language but this doesn't mean you are intelligent. It just means you sat down and learned it. Just about anyone could sit down and learn it as well. The simple fact that they did not does make someone more or less intelligent. Perceiving your own intelligence as greater than others is one of the first traits that needs weeded out of companies. Once you view people as equal, then the challenge goes from finding these "intelligent" people to implementing a culture of training and development. The faster you can catch employees up to speed, the sooner the employee can make an impact and benefit the company.

The most successful founders I see don't view life as some competition. It's weird for many in the start up world to think like that. It's easy to see competitors as people to put out of business. The successful leaders are the ones that recognize when people are working towards the same goal and align their efforts to that goal. They coordinate and inspire people to achieve the objective instead of keeping things in secret and trying to take down others working towards their goal. The competition should be the companies or people working against your goals. For example, I view increasing privacy and de-monopolizing the tech industry as goals I want to help with. People that want to help out with those goals are not my competition even if they end up being more successful than me or maybe taking some potential revenue away from me. Shelving pride to achieve your goals is a good way to get ahead. My personal competitors are the people that want to exploit privacy and protect the industry giants. The only way to win long term is to team up and work with like minded people.


Build inclusivity by creating a safe environment that everyone can speak up in without fear of reprisal. Reduce the extreme reactions of dismissing tech or ideas outright. Listen to all levels of your employees no matter their level or pay grade because everyone deserves respect and consideration. If your company truly embodies this then you are on your way to success no matter the challenges ahead. If it does not, your company is tossing money down the drain. As the saying goes, "United we stand and divided we fall".

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