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‹ View all articles 17th August 2017

When is it safe to share a controversial opinion? What are we learning from the “Google Memo”?

Authenticity Sarah Lloyd-HughesSarah Lloyd-Hughes

The public reaction following the recent Google Diversity Memo has been fascinating. In case you missed it - James Damore, an engineer from Google, wrote a memo in July 2017 entitled ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’ critiquing Google’s diversity and inclusion policies. On 7th August, following viral spreading of the memo and subsequent outrage, Damore was fired from Google. 

Whilst I don’t want to discuss the merits and demerits of the memo here (I believe it has both and am continuing to form my opinion), it’s got me reflecting on how safe we are to express controversial ideas within our companies or industry. 

The trend towards authenticity 

I have spent the past decade encouraging leaders to communicate with greater authenticity and honesty. Why? Because honesty is a basic foundation for trust – and trust is necessary for business and other institutions to thrive. If we don’t trust our leaders, we followers can’t fully commit ourselves to their cause. 

Authenticity has become a buzz word that many of my clients resonate with. It’s a word that we hear a lot (almost to the point of devaluing it). I’m often asked, "How can I communicate in a more authentic way?” by pitch givers, keynote speakers, team leaders and beyond. What they mean is, “How can I be myself – a relaxed, relatable human being, when other people are listening?” 

I can’t think of anyone who’s argued that authenticity is, as and of itself, a bad thing.  

However… 

Controversy is a necessary part of authenticity. 

To be truly authentic, we need to be able to risk saying something stupid, putting a nose or two out of joint, or trying on a new way of thinking, in order for better solutions to be found. It’s a terrifying thing to be the first to speak up against an established norm, but it is, more often than not, a hugely developing thing to do, even when we get it wrong

Think about Churchill versus Chamberlain at the eve of World War II; Chamberlain was a Hitler appeaser, fitting in with the prevailing norm at the time, whereas Churchill stubbornly and controversially warned of Nazi armament for many years before war broke out. Who is the leader we consider to be historically more authentic and more trustworthy?

On an everyday level, the team mate who says ‘stop, I don’t get the reasoning behind this, please explain before we go any further’, the commentator who provides a counter to the politically correct norm and the friend who tells you an uncomfortable truth is the one whose opinions we ultimately value.

As we speak out, we figure out what we really mean

When we have the safety to blurt out what we think, we shape our own ideas (‘oh, I’m not sure I really meant that’) and help others to shape their ideas too. 

Similarly, if we’re never able to even court controversial ideas, we’ll never reach the depths of understanding that’s needed to find good solutions to complex problems.

The Google Memo, incidentally, was nothing more controversial than views I’ve heard expressed recently by various female leaders critiquing diversity. He was just brave (stupid?) enough to share them publicly, rather than in a 1-2-1 conversation. Sure, Damore may have presented various arguments in a less than skilful way, but every honest debate is an opportunity to learn. Remember that he was writing an internal memo, not a manifesto for global consumption and critique. 

We’ve forgotten how to debate 

Right now, when a controversial opinion is expressed, it seems like we don’t know how to react. With the coming of social media we’ve become, very quickly, very bad arguers, who are quick to offend; who engage in mudslinging from either side of the fence without listening to the other side. We’re becoming polarised rather than learning from differences. 

Is controversy a necessary part of authenticity?  

What do you think? What are your experiences? 

I want to investigate with you, as a professional, how to dare to express an opinion that’s contrary to some, or all of your colleagues. 

I’m thinking through my practical suggestions on this and would like to hear yours. Please either respond directly, or ping me a private message - I will summarise reflections and come back with part two of this article next week.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

About Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger Training & Coaching and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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