Why Silicon Valley’s “Arrest Disorder” Response to Sexism Won’t Work

Image credit: thechewu

The recent meltdowns at Uber and venture capital firm Binary Capital have exposed the systemic sexism and sexual harassment that have been rampant in Silicon Valley for decades. It seems that we’ve reached a tipping point. Many women and men are outraged, as I think we all should be.

Yet when the anger and anguish settle, the question remains: How do we use this crisis as an opportunity, not just to condemn and punish, but to create a lasting and meaningful change in the industry, where it’s long overdue?

Watching Uber’s reaction, as well as various commentaries on Binary Capital’s fallout, has left me with the sinking feeling that while the anger and condemnation are well-justified, the real issue and opportunity are largely missed. Worse, the current response is likely to do more damage than good, pushing the real problem even deeper under the surface, where it will continue to simmer and rear its ugly head in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

A typical knee-jerk response to a wrongdoing is to STOP, PUNISH, and RESTRAIN. This is, in essence, what you find in Eric Holder’s Uber report. The forty seven recommendations-fully adopted by Uber-aim to achieve cultural change by instituting a slew of restraining policies, compliance procedures, and mandatory trainings. The underlying message is let’s beat respect for women and diversity into Uber’s workforce.

Are you feeling inspired?

I applaud Reid Hoffman, the billionaire tech entrepreneur, for taking a powerful stand against what he called “outrageous and immoral behavior”, referring to sexism in the VC industry. And while his suggestions—establishing HR function, restraining romantic relationships, and isolating and shunning the perpetrators—should help reduce inappropriate behaviors, they are unlikely to change long-standing perceptions about women in the workplace.

I’m reminded of a brilliant quote from K-PAX, a sci-fi movie in which an alien named Prot makes an astute observation: “You humans, most of you, subscribe to this policy of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, which is known throughout the universe for its…stupidity.”

Restrain, punish, isolate. Have we not learned anything about change? Have we not learned that whacking consciousness into people doesn’t work?

It’s important to understand the roots of this misguided thinking because it permeates our organizations and goes far beyond how we deal with sexism. The thinking comes from what Carol Sanford calls “Arrest Disorder” mindset. Born out of behaviorist psychology, it assumes that people have no capacity for consciousness or self-awareness, and thus their behaviors need to be managed externally through carefully designed punishments and rewards. It’s worth mentioning that this theory was based on experiments on (drumroll) rats. If you think that rats are an accurate approximation of humans, then beating conscientious behaviors into people is a fine strategy. (This, by the way, applies to any behaviorist-based organizational change effort, no matter the issue.)

Reflecting on broader consequences, the Arrest Disorder approach is likely to accomplish two things. First, it is fundamentally de-spiriting and dehumanizing for everyone involved. It forces someone else’s idea of right behavior onto others. It makes people feel…well, like rats in training.

Second, while it can be effective at arresting a particular behavior in the short term, it does nothing to shift people’s mindsets (other than breed more resentment). With mindsets unchanged, it is only a matter of time before the old thinking—sexism, in this case—manifests itself in a different form and different behaviors. Just look at how America has dealt with racism over decades—another example of Arrest Disorder fiasco, one that demonstrates how change based on Arrest Disorder is a Sisyphean task.

Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech, points this out too in her interview with the LA Times. “It’s kind of like Whack-A-Mole. These stories come out, someone gets fired or resigns and everything is OK for a bit, but then new things keep popping up.” And pop up they will. This is entirely by design—it’s what you get with the Arrest Disorder approach.

Shifting the Paradigm: From Arrest Disorder to Evolve Capacity

If the goal is to create lasting and meaningful change that people actually want and choose to participate in, or even to lead, then a new change paradigm is needed. Carol Sanford calls it the “Evolve Capacity” paradigm.

Arrest Disorder works from “How do we get people to follow the right behaviors?” Evolve Capacity begins with, “How do we develop people’s capacity to make more thoughtful, responsible, and caring choices?”

The Evolve Capacity approach is based on the fundamental premise that every human being is born with a unique essence, a deep desire to live a meaningful and productive life, and the aspiration to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Once awakened, this calling leads people into lifelong journeys to develop their own capacity, so that they can better serve what they see as most important and necessary. While every individual’s journey is unique, the desire to serve and make a meaningful contribution is universal and represents what many call the “highest expression of human life.”

In Evolve Capacity approach, we usually move through four key phases. I use a possible change effort at Uber as an example:

  1. We begin by developing a systemic and holistic understanding of the CAUSE we are concerned with. In Uber’s case, the cause might be to eliminate sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.
  2. We then move toward a PURPOSE that supports a new state and higher-order expression of the organization’s potential. In Uber’s case, this might translate to two focus areas. First, building a culture of deep respect for the unique contribution that each co-creator—employee, contractor, or driver—brings to serving Uber’s audacious mission, because it takes a [highly collaborative] village to reinvent the world’s operating system for transportation. Second, building a culture of self-responsibility, in which each person clearly sees the ripple effects of their choices and behaviors, and therefore is able to choose more wisely and responsibly.
  3. Next, we ask what new CAPACITIES we must develop to bring the desired PURPOSE into existence. In Uber’s case, this could mean developing in its workforce the capacity for reflection, self-awareness, self-management, critical thinking, and the ability to engage with others developmentally.
  4. Finally, we do careful STRUCTURING which involves designing developmental scaffolding (processes, systems, structures) that operationalize the developmental agenda outlined in items 2 and 3 above. In Uber’s case, we might begin by forming a multi-level, volunteer leadership cohort, passionate about leading this effort, and then designing a series of successive developmental sessions to build their capacity and capability to lead and scale this cultural change, from the inside out. (There is a lot more to structuring the Uber effort, the full complexity is outside of scope of this article.)

Here is the framework representation of the four phases:

Note that by comparison, the Arrest Disorder approach usually moves from CAUSE straight to STRUCTURING. It is not developmental in a sense that it doesn’t build will for change, and it doesn’t develop new capacity that would allow the system to operate at a new and higher order of functioning. Is it any wonder that Arrest Disorder change is rarely engaging or lasting?

How We Think About Change Must Change

The threat of sexism and sexual harassment—in hi-tech and beyond—is very real and must be seriously addressed. At the same time, there is a broader lesson here, which has to do with how we think about change. If you’ve ever wondered why people in your organization resist a change initiative or why change doesn’t stick, I hope this article gives you new clues. Leaders leading change often start with a noble change agenda but then habitually (and unconsciously) resort to Arrest Disorder methods, which causes disengagement and resistance—by design.

Silicon Valley reinvents technology every three to five years. And yet, the way we think about change hasn’t changed in decades. Isn’t it time we caught up?

If your organization wants to create more caring, agility, innovation, and growth, the Evolve Capacity approach holds a great promise. And you don’t have to take my word for it. There are great case stories that clearly demonstrate how Evolve Capacity thinking transformed Fortune 100 businesses and revolutionized entire industries, generating double- and triple-digit growth that was sustained for years.

Yes, it means venturing into a new territory. Yes, it requires courage and serious commitment from senior leadership. And yes, it means developing new thinking and capabilities at all levels of an organization—learning that takes patience and time. But the rewards are enormous for all stakeholders, making this leap more than worth the while.

If you’re curious how the Evolve Capacity approach can help you rethink change and development in your organization, drop me a note and let’s talk.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on July 9, 2017.