Thanks to Wolfgang Hasselmann, Ken Whytock, and Jeff Sheldon for the photos I was able to remix into this image.

The ex-CEO of Waze was preaching to the startup choir

How unchecked confirmation bias can make you betray your own values

Last week, I read the article by Noam Bardin, ex-CEO of Waze, on why he stayed so long at Google. In it, he states that his experience selling Waze to Google proved to him that it’s difficult for startups to operate within a large corporation without clashes over culture and governance.

Like many people working with startups, I was nodding approvingly by the end and excitedly shared the article with my networks.

The man is clearly very intelligent and hard-working, and he built an incredible company that was bought out by an even more incredible company. Noam provided some poignant examples of things startups should look out for when joining a corporation, especially if they’re interested in maintaining their culture and agile operations. He even went so far as to admit it was his fault for believing he could “keep the start-up magic within a corporation, in spite of all the evidence showing the opposite.”

Yet there was something about his writing that rubbed me the wrong way, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Given that I was otherwise pleased with the article overall, I pushed those concerns aside.

In psychology, this is called confirmation bias. The Wikipedia definition for it is:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

In my case, the confirmation bias looked something like this:

I believe startups should remain agile and maintain a close connection with their users. I also believe that founders should generally avoid acquisitions if they intend to pursue their vision rather than exit the company. These beliefs make me inherently less critical of the more questionable claims in the article because I am satisfied with my newfound sense of validation. To further this sense of validation, I will share the article among my like-minded networks, which results in even more confirmation of my beliefs.

It took a conversation with a friend much smarter than I am for me to realize that, like so many others lauding the points about startup acquisitions, I failed to acknowledge some of the more troubling points of this article. She laid out clearly what had bothered me about the piece: Noam was talking down employees for their behaviour within the company while talking up leadership for giving him incredible latitude. At a time when it’s commonly accepted that leadership — not individual employees — are largely responsible for defining company culture, this seems rather tone deaf.

The incongruence is clearest when Noam paints a picture of ungrateful Google employees demanding paid lunches while they worked from home. Out of context, this could be seen as a legitimate point. Why should people who are paid among the highest wages in the world demand more when so many others across the country are losing jobs due to the pandemic?

Yet Google, like most of the tech giants, made some of their best revenues during the pandemic, and the lion’s share of these revenues is going straight into leadership’s wallets. When you are an employee in such a company, you typically choose to remain because of the promised perks. Why should you lower your standards while your leaders improve theirs? Why should you give up your typically paid-for lunches while leadership not only maintained, but grew their income?

While I agree with them, somehow I completely overlooked these points when I first read the article. But this is part of the problem with confirmation bias. I was so focused on obtaining confirmation on my views about startup acquisitions that I became blind to anything that didn’t reinforce those ideas. And even if someone had pointed out other issues with the article, my initial reaction probably would have been “but you’re missing the point.”

On second read, Noam’s original complaint about demanding employees is a classic example of a strawman argument. If the piece is meant to discuss the fate of startups post-acquisition, then how does complaining about what employees are expensing for lunch progress the conversation?

As someone promoting the importance of focusing on the “signal” rather than the “noise” in order to build products that prioritize users’ needs, Noam’s failure to recognize a corporation’s greed is rather troubling. On top of this, he makes some points about these employees focusing on life more than work:

“Today, in Silicon Valley, work life balance has become sacrificing Work for Life — not a balance. Young people want it all — they want to get promoted quickly, achieve economic independence, feel fulfilled at Work, be home early, not miss the Yoga class at 11:00am etc.” — Noam Bardin

This is a tired and toxic narrative about ungrateful millennials that has been disproven with data from the US census. On top of this, only a sentence later he acknowledges that the people in these examples were acting fully in line with company policy.

This isn’t to say that Noam didn’t make some great points. He laid down some relevant ideas around employees in corporations being too disconnected from their users and poor incentive structures that make employees focus more on promotions than creating quality products. Yet, who is in charge of implementing better incentive structures? Who creates the systems that enable or disable employees from being closer to their users? Who created the policy that allows employees to go to yoga at 11am? Who decided to pay for lunches in the first place?

You guessed it: Leadership.

Frankly what is most incongruent about the piece is that all the legal problems and lack of support by Google for Waze that Noam pointed out are within the control of the leadership. Why then does he claim to have nothing but positive things to say about Google’s leadership?

“The amount of time and effort spent on Legal, Policy, Privacy — on features that have not shipped to users yet, meant a significant waste of resources and focus.” — Noam Bardin

A few paragraphs later…

“I have only positive things to say about the Google leadership that gave me all the independence it could.” — Noam Bardin

In a reply to a Tweet pointing out that Noam did not explicitly say why he left, he replied with this:

I find this Tweet to be a much sharper indicator of the central point of this piece: Noam simply does not gel with what a corporation inherently is, and that is perfectly okay.

What is not okay is how many people on the internet, myself included, shared this piece with nary a disclaimer of its flaws. I felt most ashamed of myself when I framed it another way: one of the most widely shared blog posts on startup acquisitions in recent memory mocks employees for not working hard enough (though they acted within their rights), while celebrating leadership that failed to implement startup-friendly policies. Worst of all, this rampant sharing online is happening at a time when we’re supposedly more attuned to people’s needs outside the workplace. If shaming employees for not hustling harder is no longer considered acceptable — especially during turbulent times — why didn’t this article send up red flags for more people?

Looking back at this piece now, it scares me to think that I unwittingly played a part in promoting the idea that people should be blindly grateful to a corporation they work for while simultaneously feeling they should do more work than they are paid for — even if they are paid $1,000 per hour. In reality, you owe a corporation absolutely nothing more than what you contractually agreed upon — particularly when leadership fails to accommodate the contractual terms during an economic downturn while they get even richer.

My confirmation bias prevented me from thinking critically when it came to this piece. The viral nature of the internet and social capital from all the high profile endorsements this piece received on social media prompted me to unquestioningly share views that are in direct opposition with my core values.

Yet, I do not resent this article in the slightest. In fact, I think the internet is beautiful because such opinions can go up and get pushed around. We absolutely need to expose ourselves to different ideas in order to grow and think for ourselves. Instead, the failure comes from the algorithms and social networks that we built. Online spaces do not allow for healthy conversations, and algorithms push content blindly without offering people the chance to reflect.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The people who program these algorithms can educate themselves on the pitfalls of cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, and create technologies that work with our flaws rather than exploit them. What if upon reading this article, I was prevented from sharing it until I read an opposing point of view? What if social media incentivized users who disagreed with me to comment with thoughtful counter-arguments? What if “Likes” weren’t so easy to dole out and the range of reactions included “Disagree” or even more complex sentiments?

If our technology operated like this, articles like Noam’s would be even more valuable. They would become points of conversation, reflection, and debate. Instead, we sit idly in our proverbial, algorithmically-driven bandwagons basking in the glory of silent thumbs ups.

Designing tools for more transparent algorithms and better cognition. Dedicated to making tech further our curiosity and creativity.

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