How do we adapt when values change?

How do we adapt when values change?
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

I recently finished “Extremely Hardcore" by Zoë Schiffer. As I expected, it's a great read, condensing a lot of reporting about Musk's takeover of Twitter and the chaotic months leading up to and after the deal closed. The book speak at length about the values and culture that Musk introduced at Twitter, and whilst I have many thoughts on those, that's not what this article is about, instead it’s about how to handle that change.

A clash of cultures

What I noticed more than anything else in the book is the culture clash of Old Twitter vs New Twitter. Love it or hate it, Twitter did seem to have a strong company culture, which one employee described as “benevolent anarchy.”[1] and has also been described as “the free speech wing of the free speech party”[2]. This culture permeated through every part of the organisation, as a good culture should, manifesting in technical decisions, hiring decisions and policy decisions. When the deal was announced, I spoke with many former "Tweeps" who were legitimately mourning what Musk would do with the product and the company.

It seemed that many of the "old Twitter" assumed their culture was so resilient that Elon Musk would simply adapt to it, despite all evidence to the contrary. And to be fair, at many companies, especially the classic "Silicon Valley Tech Company", this kind of thinking is reinforced. People are told that "the culture" is not just one person, but all of us. At one point, the room where Facebook onboarded new hires had a giant mural that said "THIS IS NOW YOUR COMPANY"[3], so you could forgive staff for feeling a sense of ownership over the values, and it’s only natural to defend things you feel ownership over.

Eventually though, values change, and rightly so, but how they change is all about the leadership of your company. The only thing you can control is your response to that change.

Dictators and leaders

There's a term in open source software called "Benevolent dictator for life", the gist of which is that the project's leader will hold the final say on important decisions, but will for the most part let the community of that project argue out the pros and cons before coming to a consensus. Essentially even though they hold the power, they'll rarely wield it. The check on their power is that anyone can fork the project, and if it's a large enough portion of the community, the original project will be abandoned.

But the reality is that companies are not open source projects. There's very real cost to leaving a company, and you generally can't just stroll into a new job. So whilst employees do of course have a role to play in company culture, the extent to which they can shape that culture is entirely dependent on leadership.

Individual employees can demonstrate urgency in their decision making, hoping that others imitate them and they're on enough hiring panels to choose like minded folks. On the other hand, the CEO and their team can declare "we value urgency", add it to the performance review process, and start managing out people who don't move fast enough.

And to be clear, this is probably correct, and part of leadership's role. I personally believe that a good leader isn't a dictator, but one that instead chooses to promote values that show the best of the organisation's existing behaviours. However it's naïve to assume that leadership has to consider the opinions of the rank and file when it comes to how those values function day to day. That's a level of benevolence that I don't think any CEO of a large company would consider.

Decide how much you value the values

So what do you do when you find yourself disagreeing with the values at your organisation, especially if they're dictated from the top? Well, the first thing to do is assume positive intent. Leadership presumably wants to be successful, and you should too, so consider if maybe the values are a good thing, but you haven't understood the thinking behind them.

Take the famous Facebook value of "Move Fast and Break Things". People love to talk about it, and I've spent many years having people tell me how wrong it was, but I believed then, and still believe that people fundamentally misunderstood it. Another more recent example is Intercom's value of "Impatience". I disagreed with the wording - impatience makes me think of people shouting at an underpaid barista - but I 100% agreed with the sentiment, which is that if you have a choice between doing something today or something next week, you should definitely choose today. The speed of decision making has a compounding return on your organisation.

If you go through the values assuming positive intent and still find yourself with issues, then I think you need to decide how strong your opposition is. Amazon has a leadership principle of "Disagree and commit" which is instructive here. Ask yourself, can you disagree with the values, but commit to demonstrating and upholding them?

If the answer is yes, then you really need to internalise that. You're part of a team, and you need to all operate by the same values. And if you can do that, you might surprise yourself at how successful you can be.

If the answer to that is no, then in the long run, you're only hurting yourself by sticking around trying to being the principled opposition. As many Twitter staff found out, Leadership will outlast you. You'll be sidelined in important conversations, you'll have trouble making an impact in core parts of your job, and you'll likely end up leaving on unpleasant terms because as some point, your opposition to the values becomes a distraction to everyone. Better to start looking for an exit before you're shown the door.

And to be clear, leaving isn’t a failure on anyone’s part. You simply disagree with leadership on something that matters to you. If you’re fortunate enough to have the security to leave, you need to recognise that life is too short to fight every battle. It takes strength to make that choice, and honestly, not everyone has that, so see it as a positive and move on gracefully.

  1. Schiffer, Zoë. Extremely Hardcore: Inside Elon Musk's Twitter (p. 17). Penguin Publishing Group. ↩︎
  2. Tony Wang speaking to The Guardian ↩︎
  3. Mike R even wrote a book about it, you should check it out. ↩︎