Why Bossism Won’t Work

A team of office workers sitting around a table. Two men are shaking hands.

The new phenomenon in tech is on the rise —  and wreaking havoc on DEI initiatives

Why Bossism, the New Phenomenon in Tech, Won’t Work

With a recessive period upon us, we’ve witnessed a growing trend of corporate leaders in the tech industry embracing “bossism,” a leadership style that emphasizes control, dominance, and a top-down approach to management. It’s viewed as an effective way to increase productivity and profitability during times of economic uncertainty. 

It’s also a seemingly wild pendulum swing away from Silicon Valley’s long-standing focus on employee well-being and morale — especially with the renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that many pledged to uphold following George Floyd’s murder.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times (“The Era of Happy Tech Workers Is Over”) claims just that: 

Silicon Valley… with its radically transparent company cultures, empowered employees, flat hierarchies and rarefied perks… is quickly disappearing and unlikely to return.

The author argues that due to the economic environment, executives must now prioritize profitability, “sometimes at the expense of long-held organizational beliefs.” Sadly, that means the first programs on the chopping block are the “nice-to-haves,” e.g., flexible working arrangements, employee benefits packages, talent development, and DEI initiatives.

At Inclusion in Progress, we’ve already started to witness these shifts with client partners in the tech industry. Our in-house colleagues leading DEI in tech — hired to appease outraged employees and stakeholders in June 2020 — have watched their teams significantly downsize or have been made redundant themselves. The diversity programs and inclusion initiatives they leave behind remain on pause until further notice. 

Maybe leaders are tempted to increase their power and control over their teams, who’ve been working remotely over the last three years. Maybe leaders view the economic uncertainty as an excuse to cut costs, let go of low performers, and streamline operations to focus on the bottom line. Or maybe leaders are drawn to a more authoritarian management style à la Elon Musk, which harkens back to a war-time CEO archetype many of them aim to emulate. But while bossism proponents would claim to favor the bottom line, they do so at the expense of the people who are responsible for creating the bottom line in the first place.

Unfortunately, DEI programs can take a back seat when corporations tighten their belts. It also means that many of the first people to go are those who’d most benefit from these initiatives, such as women and people of color, who tech companies have focused on and invested in recruiting during their push to increase diverse representation.

However, during times of economic uncertainty, it’s more important than ever for companies to prioritize their DEI efforts, rather than engage in bossism. Here are just a few reasons why:

1. Diverse teams are more resilient during times of change and uncertainty. 

A team with a wide range of perspectives and experiences is better equipped to help your organization adapt to changing market conditions and find new solutions to complex problems. This can be especially important during a recession, when companies need to find ways to cut costs and increase efficiency without sacrificing quality or innovation. 

A 2021 study analyzed the correlation between S&P 500 board members’ diversity and their performance before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The study found a 9%-point increase in the likelihood of positive year-over-year revenue growth in 2020, and an increase in company revenue for the more diverse companies compared to the less diverse ones. While all 500 companies experienced a lower revenue due to the pandemic, year-over-year revenue grew overall by $58 billion (+1.2%), for the companies with more diverse representation on their boards, versus a $283 billion drop (-3.9%), for the less diverse ones, leading the report to conclude that “boards with multi-dimensional diversity experienced less downside and even revenue growth throughout the pandemic.”

Without the perspectives of your best people at the table — and the workplace culture strategies that provide psychological safety for them to be willing to share those perspectives — you risk a myopic view that hinders your organization’s ability to navigate change effectively.

2. Inclusive workplace initiatives support post-layoff survivors’ productivity and morale.

Many of the employees who’ve been laid off are sharing their experiences on social media. They are celebrated as being vulnerable and receive support from others like them who are going through the same experience. 

However, the individuals that we don’t hear from are those who were left behind in workplaces. Perhaps they feel that they do not have the right to complain, especially considering the fate of their colleagues. But the employees who are allowed to remain in their roles suffer from a kind of survivor’s guilt. They’re left wondering why they were the chosen ones, and feel a mixture of complicated emotions rather than relief. This survivor’s guilt is what organizational psychologists call Workplace Survivor Syndrome.

For post-layoff survivors, there is a huge amount of trust lost in both their employer and in their leaders. Depending on how the layoffs were announced and implemented, that broken trust may be irreparable. They may also fear being “next” to lose their job, their sense of security compromised once they’ve had to say goodbye to their friends and colleagues. Workplace Survivor Syndrome also compromises your remaining team members’ sense of psychological safety — which can feel like whiplash after organizations touted their renewed commitment to DEI the last three years.

When an employee doesn’t feel like they are safe to do their best work, studies show that they may deal with consequences ranging from overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and decreased effectiveness in their role. Top that off with the trauma they may be facing after an organizational restructure (like the mass layoffs we’ve witnessed in tech in 2023), and you’ve got a perfect storm for remaining team members — their decrease in psychological safety is exacerbated by distrust and disillusionment in their employer.

If not dealt with humanely and intentionally, all of these consequences will affect your remaining employees’ morale, engagement, and productivity. Investing in DEI initiatives aimed at corporate culture, well-being, inclusion, and psychological safety will help your remaining employees to keep your company afloat during a recessive period.

3. Ongoing DEI initiatives can support today’s and tomorrow’s teams.

In 2022, we supported one of our U.S.-based client partners in the tech industry with piloting and relaunching an enterprise-wide sponsorship program for professionals from historically excluded groups — to build a more diverse succession pipeline and demonstrate their ongoing commitment to DEI for current and future talent. 

Like many tech companies, our client identified that their women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) professionals were underrepresented in leadership positions and more likely to leave due to systemic bias and non-inclusive behaviors. So they committed internal resources, achieved buy-in from stakeholders, and partnered with providers like our Inclusion in Progress team to bridge the gap. We applaud their decision to continue to not only scale their sponsorship program globally in 2023, but to also continue to prioritize similar DEI training initiatives for their global workforce, in spite of the economic uncertainty.

Our post-pandemic workforce is not only aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, they consider it non-negotiable. This is especially true for Gen Z professionals, who hail from a more racially, ethnically, and gender diverse group than their predecessors. 

According to research from the Pew Research Center, Gen Z continues to hold high expectations of their employers for DEI beyond just racial or ethnic identity, including — but not limited to — LGBTQIA+ rights, neurodiversity, accessibility, native language, and more. Gen Z professionals are keen on having access to pathways for professional advancement, expect flexible working arrangements from their employers, and will also choose whether to stay at a company based on whether or not they see representation of women and people of color in leadership roles. They’re also unafraid to make sure their voices are heard when they’re dissatisfied about a perceived lack of commitment to workplace diversity and well-being — as demonstrated in how they led the Quiet Quitting movement in March 2022.

Tech organizations (and companies more broadly) must continue to invest in DEI if they hope to remain employers of choice beyond this recessive period. Companies that fail to prioritize DEI efforts for employees during turbulent times risk being seen as out of touch or even discriminatory — which can compromise their reputation and make it harder for them to attract customers and investors. 

At Inclusion in Progress, we’ve supported tech companies with aligning their DEI initiatives with business-critical objectives, deepening their capacity to understand and address DEI issues facing their globally distributed teams, and effectively communicating their commitments internally and externally. 

To that end, we encourage the companies we work with not to see DEI as a “finished product,” but rather as a work in progress. In the same way, every new app is launched as a prototype — with improvements and updates that follow based on user feedback — tech firms have the opportunity to apply the same mindset to troubleshooting for the psychological safety of their people. 

Rolling back to an earlier version of leadership that’s rooted in a boss’s power over your employees will undo all the progress you’ve made — and employees will take note of how you chose to lead when the recessive period comes to an end.

About Inclusion in Progress 

Inclusion in Progress is a global DEI consulting firm that specializes in talent retention strategies for distributed teams. IIP works with multinational organizations to improve inclusive communication skills between distributed team members, to retain diverse talent and reduce turnover, and to build a culture of inclusion that enables a company’s competitive edge in the future of work. Get in touch with Inclusion in Progress for our bespoke consulting, training, speaking and workshops.

ABOUT Kay Fabella

Kay Fabella is a storyteller and communications strategist. She helps entrepreneurs and professionals around the world develop a communication strategy to meaningfully connect with their audiences — and meet their business goals. Kay is also world-recognized author, speaker, and trainer. A Los Angeles native, she’s built her dream business from Spain to train her clients in the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia to help bring their brands to life. She's also been featured in international media including The Huffington Post, El País and EFE Emprende. Check out Kay’s stories, tips, and insights on life and business at kayfabella.com (y en español: kayfabella.com/inicio).