In this series, I’m exploring the influence of white supremacy culture on tech (and broadly, professional) culture, following Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s list of characteristics as a guide.
This series is not for skimming. I strongly recommend reading the introduction before you read this post.
Today, we’ll talk about the first element on the list: Perfectionism. Here it is, verbatim:
- little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
- more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
- or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
- tendency to identify what’s wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what’s right
- mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are — mistakes
- making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
- little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
I see four themes in the above description:
- Thing A: Insufficient attribution for positive contributions.
- Thing B: Fixation on shortcomings or disagreements.
- Thing C: Conflating individual mistakes and chronic character flaws.
- Thing D: Systematic aversion to collaborative retrospection.
Do I see these themes in tech?
Thing A: Insufficient attribution for positive contributions.
I have written at length about how attribution goes undistributed, or redistributed, on tech teams. I have stood in standups where folks mentioned ideas without crediting the person who gave them the idea. Those incidents, among others, inspired “How Your DudeBros are Losing You Money.”
I have sat in meetings where VPs and CTOs attempted to do a better job at attribution. Their efforts backfired when they misidentified (or straight-up admitted that they didn’t remember) the person who said it. This made it look like they hadn’t exerted the effort to differentiate between their staff.
When people don’t get credit for their contributions, they’re less likely to offer those contributions. An example from the aforementioned DudeBro piece:
If [a colleague] is trying to solve a problem and I have an idea for how to solve that problem, you’re better off if I want to share that idea.
The thing is, how is [that colleague] going to treat my idea when they mention in an all-hands meeting that the problem is solved?
I have coworkers who I know to be excellent at attribution, and I will put down whatever I’m doing…to help them resolve challenges. If I’m alone in a room with [someone who has not mastered attribution]? I’m not sharing. How many good ideas has your company lost over this?
I sat down and really thought about that. How many good ideas have companies that I worked for, lost, over this? How was I complicit in those cases? And what could have been, that now may never be?
Thing B: Fixation on shortcomings or disagreements.
I have received pull request reviews that only mentioned things that the reviewer wanted to see changed. Heck, I have given pull request reviews that only mentioned things I wanted to see changed (I learned to do better).
But that practice is so pervasive that code review guides fixate on it. As you know, I’ve got 99 problems with pull request reviews and that’s only one. But it’s a BIG one.
Viewing contributions with a perfectionist lens means people pass up opportunities to benefit from outside contributions. Why? Because they know that the entirety of the feedback will focus on what they did wrong.
Wanna see how this can cost a pile of cash? Listen to this. I took over a project from a sole developer who merged all her own pull requests and then left the organization. I needed to re-build project context from scratch because no one knew anything. That process took time, which the client paid for. The lack of context transfer cost this organization, net, about $30,000. This was not a rich client to begin with.
To break this cycle of isolation, the director (rightfully) asked a the developer who might have reviewed my predecessor’s code to review my code. This developer spoke pejoratively of my predecessor’s work and skill, which clued me into their working relationship. It also clued me into his general view of his colleagues, because I’ll tell you what—my predecessor’s code was not documented, but it was sound. I don’t agree with all the choices she made, but I get them. She’s a damn good engineer. If this guy talked about her like that, how was he gonna talk about me?
Unsurprisingly, when the developer started reviewing my work, his comments focused exclusively on choices he did not agree with.
Wow—no wonder the original developer merged all her own PRs.
Thing C: Conflating individual mistakes and chronic character flaws.
And the consequence of making a mistake—being seen as a mistake—is so severe, so devoid of grace, that folks take pains to avoid talking about mistakes in the workplace. When we’re asked for feedback, we have to evaluate whether it is safe to give first or risk dangerous retaliation. We have to build whole evaluation frameworks that expressly avoid addressing the topics that people closely associate (even inaccurately) with bad personhood. This leads to…
Thing D: Systematic aversion to collaborative retrospection.
Even in retrospective meetings held expressly for the purpose of discussing lessons learned, team members (and, often, this starts with team leadership) take steps to ensure that nothing “too disruptive” comes out. Google provides a high-profile example, having changed staff meetings to no longer accept in-person questions after employee activist groups brought questions that got too real.
And the fear of what a critique might mean about its subject denies workplaces the opportunity to improve. Could Google have remained the gold standard of employee happiness that it once was if it had engaged with dissent at its staff meetings? Maybe, but we cannot know, because now the company has a reputation for firing organizers and busting labor unions.
The Circumstances of Adopting a Perfectionist Culture
I won’t get into the history of perfectionism as a white supremacist cultural export, but I want to address a question that came up for me in the process of considering perfectionism.
Many communities of color carry stereotypes related to children growing up under the regimes of perfectionist or punitive parents. We call east asian parents tiger mothers. South asian comedians joke that they had to come out to their family as as “not a doctor or lawyer.” If you’re Mexican, you live in fear of la chancla. White folks on twitter and instagram recently scratched their heads about a photo of Chicago’s mayor Lori Lightfoot talking about the city’s coronavirus response, with the caption “GYBAITGDHBIBYMFA.” Black folks were like “Yep, got it.” I’ll let you look up what that means yourself, but spoiler alert—it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error.
Do those stereotypes strain the link between perfectionism and white supremacy? This question gives us a chance to talk about two important concepts:
1. Communities outside the dominant culture have to assimilate to survive.
When communities adopt perfectionist/punitive parenting practices, it’s not because white people have it figured out and immigrants are the real white supremacists. It’s because white supremacist culture pervades colonized places like the United States, Canada, and Australia. To survive in that culture, everybody has to assimilate.
We see this especially in white supremacist cultures’ rhetoric about immigrants: they have to “demonstrate value” and be seen as “good, lawful, useful” people who “don’t cause no trouble” or they’ll get ostracized, deported, or murdered (or maybe all three).1
As you may have guessed, colonized country leadership’s definitions of “good, lawful, and useful” have a lot of white supremacy baked in there. And folks who don’t “look like they belong” get held to a different standard than leadership’s own, too. So perfectionism is about survival. Folks who came from cultures that valued attribution for positive contributions and restorative justice for folks who made mistakes had to abandon those values to survive in a punitive, carceral colonial system.
1 The necessity of assimilation to demonstrate value also applies to cutthroat perfectionism that we see outside colonial borders. I’m thinking specifically of one counterexample: perfectionism around academic performance and standardized test scores outside the colonies. Much of that system exists for the express purpose of demonstrating “legitimacy” to white supremacist academic institutions.
And by the way, jokes and stereotypes about the way minority groups behave aren’t funny, even if they’re true, when they attack those groups for something they do because of persecution.
Another example: the stereotype that queer people have “immature dating habits”. This is a tweet thread about that, and by the end, you’ll realize it’s not funny.
LGBT history time! Sort of. Pull up a chair.
Let's talk about the idea that queer people exhibit "immature dating habits"—that is, dating behavior that heteros expect from people 5-10 years younger.
Why is that? A thread.
Here's the Cliff notes: homophobia
— Chelsea Troy––Yes, That One 😉 (@HeyChelseaTroy) December 13, 2018
2. There is a difference between white supremacy culture and white people.
Look, we all carry some racism. It’s not because we’re all terrible people who are trying to be racist (getting meta for a second: racism is a big topic where people associate making a mistake with being a bad person, which leads to not addressing the racism, which leads to more racism). We carry racism because we have been conditioned by a racist social and cultural code: specifically, a white supremacist one. The things that we consider “universal” values that come from white supremacist values bend our understanding of what is “good” towards a white supremacist mindset.
It is in seeing that distinction that we start to dismantle white supremacy culture, to our immense benefit. Seeing that distinction gives us the ability to say:
“Wait a second. This thing we all believe about what it means to be “professional?” It’s not universally true. We just think it’s true because the culture that grew and perpetuated the system we work in thought it was true.
But there might be alternatives to that perspective that address some of the problems with our perspective. And we’re likely to find those alternatives by submitting ourselves to black and indigenous leadership and incorporating their perspectives on how to design a collaborative environment.”
What can we do about all this?
For ideas, we turn back to Jones and Okun’s work. They suggest the following antidotes to our perfectionist culture.
Antidotes: develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated; develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning; create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results; separate the person from the mistake; when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism; ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism
How do we develop a culture of appreciation?
It took me a breakup and months of soul work to start foregrounding appreciation in my own mindset. I would be both curious and thrilled to learn about workplace practices that develop this in team members.
I do think that an effective practice would have to encourage the soul work part, because anything more shallow than that will perpetuate the problems it purports to undermine.
For example, I once saw a company add a mandatory ten-minute “gratitude” period to all-hands meetings in which staff raised their hands to publicly thank other staff for their work. In theory, sounds useful, but it fell flat. The gratitude period mostly comprised underlings acknowledging their bosses by name, painstakingly listing out their accomplishments and voicing all their admirable qualities. Bosses punctuated this onslaught with flippant thanks to “my whole team for all their hard work” (without any individual names).*
* Boss appreciation day, like white history month, doesn’t need to exist because it is effectively all the time.
What about alternative frameworks for dealing with mistakes?
I had more luck researching this. White supremacist institutions demonstrate remarkably little range in their responses to mistakes, leaning almost exclusively on punitive measures.
But alternatives exist: notably, restorative justice approaches, often drawn from indigenous cultural and legal systems. Some anti-racist activist groups focus on bringing these principles to the punitive justice system in sovereign colonies.
Restorative justice might be an entirely new concept for you, and I’m not qualified to teach about it. So instead, I offer the Chicago Public Schools Restorative Practices Guide and Toolkit. It’s designed to help educators and administrators in public schools and it’s the most gentle, friendly introduction I have found to this idea. So if you’d like a deeper dive into possible alternatives to the white supremacist perspective on perfectionism before the next post in this series, I recommend taking a look at that.
We have talked about how perfectionism pushes us to fail to acknowledge people’s contributions, focus on the shortcomings of those contributions, and anticipate such dire consequences for revealing our flaws that we take pains not to do it. We have also talked about how that cheats us out of our colleagues’ contributions and blocks us from opportunities to individually and collectively improve at our weaknesses.
We also discussed the role of assimilation in the perpetuation of white supremacist culture within non-white groups and distinguished between white supremacy culture and white people themselves.
Then we talked about what we can do: about the necessity of soul work to developing a culture of appreciation, and about restorative justice as an alternative to the punitive approach that leaves us afraid to admit our mistakes to others.
We’ll look next in this series at another element of white supremacy culture: sense of urgency. In the meantime, here’s the link to the full series so far.