Are Algorithms Eating Your Culture?

This issue has come up with a number of my coaching clients recently. So I thought I’d jot down my thoughts about personal vs impersonal decision-making.

As an organization gets larger, there should be an effort to treat everyone fairly. Rules and policies are created so that everyone knows what is expected. Then, when someone breaks a rule, it’s easy to point to a policy and say, “Nothing personal. You just broke the rule.” It reduces shame or anger and avoids the tendency to think that this is somehow a judgment of this individual’s character, personality, or other personal traits. It’s the same policy for everyone. Your boss didn’t just make this up for you at this moment because he doesn’t like you.

But there are also aspects of running a business that requires a personal approach: a gut feeling; a “vibe”; or an inspiration. There’s an amount of magic, inspiration, and passion that needs to go into determining a vision or identity for the company, as well as deciding who to hire, and which clients or projects to take on. There is no algorithm or policy which can imagine the future. This often requires a leap of faith.

Additionally, algorithmic, policy-based decision-making can unintentionally suck the humanity out of otherwise inspirational moments. It’s one thing to say, “I see how hard you’ve been working. I want you to know how much it means to me and the company as a whole, so we’re giving you a 10% raise.” It’s entirely another thing to say, “As you may know, we have a policy that when you exceed an 80% utilization rate for 3 months in a row, you receive a raise based on the current profitability of the company. So you’re getting a 10% raise.” The first is personal, connecting, appreciative, and perhaps delightfully unexpected. The second is emotionless, automatic, and seems a lot more like an obligation than a celebration of success.

That being said, I’m not arguing for purely passion-based decision-making. There should be guidelines, metrics, and documentation to keep things fair. When one employee asks, “Why did she get a promotion and I didn’t?” you should be able to give a cogent answer. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be quantitative and impersonal: “She’s been doing a great job. People seem to really like her. And I felt like she’d be the best fit for this new position.”

The quick rule of thumb is this: Positive things should be more personal. Negative things should be more algorithmic.

Things that need to be more fair should have a policy, even if there may be some discretion built-in. Hiring, firing, benefits, and vacations should all have a policy. There should also be policies in place to avoid discrimination and ensure inclusiveness. But policies might include qualitative metrics like, “We want to hire people who inspire us,” or “don’t be a jerk” — with a lot of room for discretion.

Things that are intended to inspire, surprise, or delight might be left with an intentionally unclear or unwritten policy. Don’t lose the connection, appreciation, and emotion that can come from the more positive things such as promotions, bonuses, or celebrations. If you’re just acting on policy, these things lose their specialness.

For the more negative, sticky, or persistent things, automation can really underline the impersonal algorithmic nature of a policy. Setting up an automated message that says, “This is the automated bookkeeping robot writing to let you know that your invoice is overdue,” brings a lot less drama than the email which says, “This is the company CEO. Where is our money?” Likewise, “Beep boop! Time to get your timesheets in,” feels better than the more personal alternative.

Another thing to note: democracy is not an algorithm. Voting is an act of passion spread out to the entire group. This can be a good thing — if perhaps part of your hiring process is to have employee candidates meet with a group of their potential coworkers who get to participate in the decision about who they might work with. Or it could be a bad thing — if perhaps you were to have these same people vote on who to fire.

Ultimately, your position on this scale between algorithmic/policy-based and personal/emotion-based decision-making becomes part of the organization’s culture. Too far in one direction and people will leave because no one seems to care. Too far in the other direction and they’ll leave because nothing seems fair. Care vs. fair. As companies grow, they tend to become more conservative and move towards a more algorithmic approach. This certainly protects against a lot of negative nasty stuff that can come up in a growing company. And it can take years to build these systems and processes. But be careful not to let the algorithms eat the connections, celebrations, surprises, and inspirations that are part of a vibrant culture.

So are there things that happen in your organization that feel too personal or emotional? How about not personal enough? Introducing — or removing — algorithms in the form of policies, systems, metrics, or automations might just be the adjustment you need.

Jeff Robbins is a business coach, mentor, and virtual business partner who works one-on-one with company owners and leaders to help them build vision and direction for their companies while building productivity, stability, and happiness for their employees and themselves. You can work with him too. Reach out to set up a free consultation session.

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Jeff Robbins

Cofounder at @Lullabot. Executive Coach at @jjeff. Rockstar at @Orbitband.