Recently a Google employee wrote a 10-page memo to express his views. In response, he was fired. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai wrote a memo to his employees and has interrupted his vacation.
Pichai’s memo and the decision to come back clearly demonstrates that he is aware of how emotions can impact company’s culture and stifle performance, and if not responded to properly, can lead to chaos and disruption in the company.
Attachment Theory says we have wired-in needs to connect and belong. When people at work create an unsafe environment for us, we can either 1) reach out for help to connect in the form of sharing our pain, 2) push for connection in the form of blaming, judging or criticizing or 3) shut down, to preserve whatever connection we have at that moment. When people know how to create what we call emotional connection or a secure bond, they become effective in reaching out and bringing people together, pulling them in one direction, reestablishing safety and a sense of belonging.
The New Science of emotional connection shows that the most effective ways to do that is to address the three attachment questions that our mammalian brain asks, “Do I matter?” “Am I important?” and, “Will you be there for me when I need you?”
We are talking about a very special kind of emotional presence. The result of achieving goals and developing good strategies starts when people are emotionally connected. The need to be emotionally connected is wired in by millions of years of evolution that is designed to keep the people that we depend on close to us.
In his memo, Google CEO, Sundar Pichai does a superb job in creating that emotional connection by answering these three questions. Below, I’ve highlighted and analyzed the words he uses to create safety by addressing the very core of the most powerful motivational force in the human brain.
“This has been a very difficult time.” – here, Pichai is talking about his own pain because he cares about his employees so much and he sees that there are a lot of people suffering. He is empathizing, feeling with people who were offended, and saying I’m here for you, you’re not alone.
“I wanted to provide an update on the memo that was circulated over this past week.” –This is demonstrating how important the people are at Google and how much they matter to him to share the update. Answers the first two questions: Do I matter? And, am I important?.
“First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it.” – here Pichai is normalizing the context of the email and he wants to make sure that all Googlers feel safe to express their opinions, Your opinion matter. All opinions are valid and important.
“However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” – here he is using the Code of Conduct as a reference which is an effective way to re-establish safety, taking a solid stance that is not based on a personal view or opinion but on cultural norms of the company and reconfirming that violating these values hurt other people who work at the company. Code of Conduct or Core Values, as often names, serves as a foundation in building a strong company and when leaders are able to use Core Values in their decision making process, it creates stability and predictability. When there is predictability, emotions stay in balance, allowing us to create, collaborate and work better together.
“Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives.” – here Pichai aligning people into a common mission. In times of unsafety, people get off emotional balance and they get into tunnel vision. By bringing people to the common mission, Pichai is able to bring the bigger picture into view. This demonstrates his ability to maintain his own emotional balance and make sense of how to be there for his people, creating a safe space for them to regain their balance. My sense is that Pichai knows that when people lose their emotional balance, it detracts them from being fully engaged with each other and their work. Thus, by reminding people of their mission, he is bringing that emotional balance to everybody, re-aligning them to a higher purpose and establishing the common ground.
“To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” – outlining attachment pain that the comments in the memo created feelings of inferiority and might have made people uncomfortable, where they might start wondering if they are accepted and valued or not.
“It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.” – setting cultural norms, re-establishing safety by reaffirming that every person is important and matters, answering questions, “Do I matter?” and “Am I important?”.
“The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender.” – here is empathizing, validating, and reflecting hurt feelings to help contain emotions and reassuring his people that they are not alone. When a leader can reflect the key elements of their people’s experience, it pulls them closer to him and makes their emotions calmer. Alan Shore at UCLA Brain Development says, “Proximity to an attachment figure tranquilizes the nervous system.” What this means is that the CEO is as an attachment figure and when he is able to understand their pain, his words calms their nervous system down, bringing back their emotional balance.
“Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.” – Pichai is going to the edge of the emotional reality of how people perceive the culture, expanding it a little to provide a sense of how people feel, addressing the core emotional fear. The New Science of emotional connection shows that emotions are contagious. When we lose our emotional balance, not only our cognition slows down, our social skills diminish – it becomes very difficult for us to empathize, it is difficult for us to collaborate, stay engaged in a conversation, and pay attention to what the other person is saying. It seems to me that Pichai is very much aware of what happens when people feel fear or shame.
“At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK.” – empathizing both sides, distilling people’s emotions, sending clear emotional signals that all opinions are valid and important. In attachment terms, the danger is literal. For the mammalian brain, this sense of disconnection and loss is a danger cue.
“People must feel free to express dissent.” – setting company cultural norms, refocusing the company on the focal point of creating a workplace of safety, acceptance and belonging.
“So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo—such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all—are important topics.” – here the CEO is reflecting and acknowledging the person’s views is an effective role modeling of creating safety.
“The author had a right to express their views on those topics—we encourage an environment in which people can do this and it remains our policy to not take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.” – normalizing and reconfirming the right to express opinions freely, setting company cultural norms. Normalizing creates safety and reassurance of acceptance and value.
“The past few days have been very difficult for many at the company, and we need to find a way to debate issues on which we might disagree—while doing so in line with our Code of Conduct.” – This CEO’s strength is that he can reach his emotions. He is expressing the struggle that he is dealing with and reaching out to his team for help to find a solution.
“I’d encourage each of you to make an effort over the coming days to reach out to those who might have different perspectives from your own. I will be doing the same.” – this is a classic reframe giving people a model of how they can start to take control of any disconnections that they may feel, so instead of shutting down or going into the mode of pushing for connection, Pichai is suggesting them to reach out for connection, reestablishing their safety.
“I have been on work related travel in Africa and Europe the past couple of weeks and had just started my family vacation here this week. I have decided to return tomorrow as clearly there’s a lot more to discuss as a group—including how we create a more inclusive environment for all.” – Here, the CEO is being accessible, responsive, and engaged, demonstrating his care and concern for his people by being there for them in times of need. He is answering the question, “Will you be there when I need you?” as a resounding “YES”. Empathetic responsiveness allows people to have a working distance from their emotions, so they don’t get overwhelmed by it, thus, maintaining emotional balance.
Creating emotional connection is very rewarding and provides the most incredible arena for change. Attachment Theory provides a clear map for us to understand how powerful emotions are, it helps understand the drama so that you don’t get lost as the drama unfolds in front of you.
I am persuaded more and more that the essence of good leadership is to be able to help people deal with their emotions in these moments, help them get to the core feelings, needs and fears, and deal with them positively. You have to be able to do that. Because in the end, this conflict is all about attachment, all about needs and fears and how we deal with them.
Creating emotional connection develops lasting change and Sundar Pichai is working towards that goal by answering the three most important questions extremely well, “Do I matter?”, “Am I important?” and, “Will you be there if I need you?”
For more information on developing more empathy in your leadership and creating an empathetic company culture, please visit us at www.levelfiveexecutive.com or send an email to email@example.com.