Listening to Your Team: Lessons from Basecamp

There has been a lot of talk recently about Basecamp, and in particular a policy change and all-hands meeting that together ultimately led to the resignation of around a third of their employees.

The Verge has an excellent summary of what happened, gathering evidence from various people who were there at the time, so I won’t repeat all the details. In summary, Basecamp CEO and founder Jason Fried announced that they would ban political discussion on the internal forums. When there was an understandably negative reaction, both within Basecamp and among the wider public, Basecamp held an internal Zoom call. It was on this call things got considerably worse, as Ryan Singer, a senior executive and the head of strategy, declared that “I strongly disagree we live in a white supremacist culture,” and said “I don’t believe in a lot of the framing around implicit bias. I think a lot of this is actually racist.” Thirty minutes after the meeting, Singer was suspended and placed under investigation.

Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale’s newsletter, as always, brought some spot-on analysis of the whole situation. In particular, they talk about the willingness to tolerate discomfort. I’d go further – I think this is also about communication, and seeking to understand your team.

I should declare a few very minor points of interest in this:

  1. Part of the discussion was because it emerged Basecamp held a list of “funny” customer names, which was said to disproportionately contain minorities. Despite not being in any minority, I’m willing to bet my name was on that list. In fact, I’d be slightly offended if it wasn’t!
  2. I get the principle of trying to limit “political” discussions. Politics only ever seems to get increasingly polarised at the moment, and I refuse to state my political party preferences at work so as to avoid creating unnecessary disagreement.
  3. Many years ago I picked up a copy of “Getting Real” – the book written by then-37 Signals (now Basecamp) about launching products. It’s an interesting read and contains some ideas I still find intriguing (like trying to avoid anyone working overtime).

All of that might make me sympathetic to Basecamp’s management, but what I find fascinating is the exchange with a Black1 employee. I’m going to quote verbatim from the Verge article:

“The fact that you can be a white male, and come to this meeting and call people racist and say ‘white supremacy doesn’t exist’ when it’s blatant at this company is white privilege,” the employee said. “The fact that he wasn’t corrected and was in fact thanked — it makes me sick.”

Despite my best efforts, I don’t pretend to be entirely up-to-date on the terminology when discussing sensitive cultural issues. Nevertheless, there are two terms here – white supremacy and white privilege. Singer picks up on the former, which I suspect for many raises images of KKK rallies, Nazism, and the Charlottesville protests. White privilege on the other hand – the notion that being white gives you advantages not available to others – doesn’t appear to be addressed, even though there’s clearly something fundamental that the employee refers to that needs to be discussed openly. This is where the management team need to listen and which triggers the discomfort.

The second point I’d make is about banning political discussion. I’d strongly argue that however well-intentioned this is, you can only do this if you restrict a ban to an incredibly narrow sense. Discussions around BLM, diversity, and inclusiveness are not so much fundamentally political as they are cultural. They often don’t (or rather, shouldn’t) align themselves to a particular party and can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker. It should be fine to discuss anything that might form a policy without resorting to tribalism. (As an example, I won’t discuss who I vote for with colleagues, but I’ll happily talk about my views against the death penalty). Discussions can and should take place respectfully, with a view to informing people. Trying to reduce controversy should never mean that your team can’t talk about things that affect them, especially if they feel those things are present in your team.

These conversations are really hard to get right, but it starts with paying attention to everything said, and being prepared to ask questions so you’re a better informed manager.

1Something I’d not seen before but found when writing this, the New York Times capitalises the word “Black” to identify it as referring to culture as well as colour.