Baldur Bjarnason

... works as a web developer in Hveragerði, Iceland, and writes about the web, digital publishing, and web/product development

These are his notes

@danielpunkass Everybody focuses on the ill-advised ‘no politics’ rule but nobody really seems to notice that Basecamp went from being an open and trusting workplace to full lockdown in the space of a few days.

They went from:

  1. Obviously feeling free to discuss contentious and complicated topics.
  2. Having considerable autonomy in terms of running a number of employee-led committees, including a diversity and integration committee that had considerable support among staff
  3. Reviews were 360 peer-led performance reviews
  4. Going over and analysing management decisions—treating the bosses like a peer in a 360 review—seems to have been the norm.

Then all of that was taken away in what amounts to a wholesale declaration of no confidence, by the management, of the employees.

And the employees found out about it from a public blog post.

This isn’t a case of a workplace narrowing down its internal topic guidelines. Workplaces should have some guidelines for what is appropriate to discuss and what isn’t. And those should be written in collaboration with the employees to figure out what works best for the particular work that is being done. Useful guidelines are never as broad as ‘no politics’ because that guideline is so obviously unimplementable that it actually means ‘my politics’. They need to be specific. They need to establish boundaries that everybody is comfortable with. They need to explicitly allow for discussions that are necessary for the work and for the emotional health of the workplace. They need to clearly mark as off-limits those topics that harm the health of the workplace.

This is none of that. This was a hissy fit where a couple of founders completely overturned the culture they themselves established over many years, all because they felt deeply uncomfortable about being challenged. Even after the first couple of blog posts, they could have prevented any of the following damage by apologising and committing themselves to writing up new guidelines in collaboration with the employees.

But they didn’t do that because this wasn’t about establishing boundaries or establishing cultural norms. This was about establishing complete control.

Most managers aren’t going to put themselves in this position because they aren’t authoritarian narcissists. A crisis like this at a workplace that size is normally resolved by everybody talking together to establish reasonable boundaries. Often with the help of an organisational psychologist. It gets fixed without the public tantrums and most of the time nobody hears about it unless they were there.

(Disclaimer: my dad is an retired organisational psychologist. This is the sort of work he used to do. 🙂)