What We Lose When We Get Defensive

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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. Here’s the introduction and the full series so far.

Let’s talk about the third element of white supremacy culture: defensiveness.

(Warning: this one is a little long and gets personal in places).

Here’s the description of Defensiveness, verbatim:

Defensiveness

  • the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person or to clarify who has power and how they are expected to use it
  • because of either/or thinking (see below), criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude)
  • people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, making it very difficult to raise these ideas
  • a lot of energy in the organization is spent trying to make sure that people’s feelings aren’t getting hurt or working around defensive people
  • white people spend energy defending against charges of racism instead of examining how racism might actually be happening
  • the defensiveness of people in power creates an oppressive culture

I see a few things going on in this one, and we’ll discuss how each of them shows up in tech.

  • We focus on preserving the existing power distribution, rather than redistribute power to facilitate the best out of each person.
  • The pressure, and consequences, surrounding feedback fall heaviest on the person with less power regardless of whether they are the feedback giver or the feedback recipient.
  • Folks focus on defending against feedback rather than addressing it.

I found this element more complicated than the previous two because some of the items don’t feel like root causes to me, but rather like symptoms of other elements.

defensive

We focus on preserving the existing power distribution…

…rather than redistribute power to facilitate the best out of each person.

In the reflection on perfectionism in tech culture, we talked about this Google move:

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.

Our business institutions consolidate power, and we consolidate power as individuals within those institutions. Whatever modicum of power we manage to scrape together for ourselves, we fight to keep.

This happens all the way up the org chart, including folks who have already amassed significant amounts of power. We talked about this when we explored one of managers’ and executive’s hesitations around allowing employees to work remotely: “But what if I can’t tap my remote employee on the shoulder?

We harbor this illusion that the shoulder tap helps companies succeed. But it does not help folks get work done, and it often does not include the key collaborators to answer the question at hand. So where does the illusion come from?

Similar to caucuses, shoulder taps are an informal system that shuffles power toward those who already have it. It does this by situating folks in authority roles to perceive themselves in control of company operations. They can direct anyone’s attention to anything they like, for any length of time, at any point in time.

If that perception feels tenuous, recalling remote employees creates an opportunity to rebuild that perception for the decision-makers. But it doesn’t rebuild actual control: rather, it transfers it back to managers and directors from those to whom it was transferred by remote work.

Individual contributors often find themselves better able to focus while working remotely because they can defer interruptions from colleagues and bosses. Going back into the office takes that away, because it’s rude to ignore a request for your attention in person. So when the agency to get things done is distributed, there is more of it; folks have an easier time doing their jobs. When folks in power recall people to the office, they reclaim that agency for themselves and, in the process, exacting a tax on it: there is less potential for folks to get their jobs done now.

I want to share one more example of an institution protecting the existing power distribution in the name of preventing abuse. When I started teaching (first coxing and then programming), I followed what you might call a “strict” teaching style (for reasons we’ll get into later). After some reflection on a really good book, I started looking for ways to empower students to shape their own learning experiences:

 I take time to consider what the students can bring to the classroom, that I cannot.

In any classroom, that includes their unique interests and lived experiences…For example, I had two auditing students. If folks asked me questions about professional stuff, I’d give them a chance to answer it too. I had one student who came from a product management background. I asked for her help writing requirements for a homework assignment. I had one student who liked to do work early. So I posted all notes early and made everything very discoverable so she could access all course materials before session began. Because of this, she ended up being my “sentry” and pointing out things about the homework instructions that might cause confusion for students such that I was able to change them before any other students laid eyes on them.

Here’s the thing: to this day, even though I have seen this approach work, I worry with every single class about the same thing: what if the students try to take advantage?

What would it mean, do you suppose, for students to try to take advantage? After all, students “taking advantage” of an educational opportunity that I carefully prepared for them, that they paid for, should be a good thing…shouldn’t it?

But what I’m imagining is much more narrow than that; it’s something like “What if the students find some loophole that allows them to finagle a good grade without doing the work?”

And yes, I agree, that seems like a silly thing for a student to put effort into for a class that they paid for because presumably they thought it would be useful.

And yes, I agree, “figure out how to stop students from getting A’s” sounds unfulfilling.

But I realize that what I’m really worried about is that most students doing well in my class might somehow make it less valid. That I’ll lose—or fail to obtain—the respect of my colleagues, or even students. That they’ll even question my technical chops that I find myself so often defending because I don’t “look like” an engineer.

These worries are real, but they’re also conditioned: I learned to worry about these things when I learned what tech, what academia, what the professional world, values and respects. I managed to scrape together this modicum of power, and now I must defend it!

I can abide that conditioning, or I can choose instead to focus on empowering other people so they don’t need me. That’s what being a 10x developer means to me, and teaching is my attempt to be one.

And the fact that white supremacy culture turns choices about making other people productive into sacrificial choices makes us all, collectively, worse off.

End rant.

Just kidding. I’ve been ranting on this blog for 7 years. You think I’m done?

The pressure, and consequences, surrounding feedback fall heaviest on…

…the person with less power regardless of whether they are the feedback giver or the feedback recipient.

Remember when I did an entire 6-part series about feedback that turned into all those talks and podcasts and paraphernalia? In that whoooole thing, there is exactly one proactive idea: giving the feedback recipient agency to make the process conspiratorial rather than adversarial. That’s the only one. Every single other skill, idea, and heuristic in any of those pieces is reactive…a workaround.

This is what we’re working around:

The only way to guarantee the safety of delivering the news that someone needs to get better at something is to deliver it through the person who can fire them.

And the only way to guarantee the safety of receiving the same is to receive it from someone you can fire, who cannot or will not share it with anyone else.

I have seen no examples in which it was possible to guarantee the safety of the feedback participant with less power, regardless of whether they were the giver or the recipient. This is a problem. The total lack of safety around feedback stifles dissent to a costly degree. I wrote some stuff that can help individuals navigate it, but Chelsea’s Bootleg Curriculum for Parkouring a Broken Feedback System doesn’t address the root cause*.

*  But I’ll still mail you a diploma if you want one because I think it would be hilarious to see that hanging on some CTO’s wall.

 

Which begs the question: why do folks focus on defending against feedback rather than addressing it?

I think perfectionism comes into play here. Folks conflate critiques of their thoughts and actions with critiques of them as people. So people’s internal reaction to feedback becomes “If this is true as described, then I am irredeemable, and I therefore have to deny or defend this to have any hope of being a good person.”

And what can we do about defensiveness?

The Elements Document lists some antidotes. What can we do to incorporate these antidotes into our work and our lives?

Antidotes:

  • understand that structure cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse;
  • understand the link between defensiveness and fear (of losing power, losing face, losing comfort, losing privilege);
  • work on your own defensiveness;
  • name defensiveness as a problem when it is one;
  • give people credit for being able to handle more than you think;
  • discuss the ways in which defensiveness or resistance to new ideas gets in the way of the mission

I don’t have all the answers, but I can share some tactics that have helped me, one white lady, work toward the items on this list.

 1. Imagining abuse prevention as a patchwork solution rather than a singular one.

Okun and Jones state that structure cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse.

Ultimately, whatever it is that people are trying to get out of something or someone, no individual structure can stop that. Blue teamers (information security professionals dedicated to preventing bad actors from getting ahold of data) have a mantra: there’s no way to fully prevent a hack. So instead, they aim to make the exploits so time-consuming and arduous that the hacker doesn’t try, or lacks the bandwidth to carry them to fruition. Usually that is done with a patchwork of redundant or overlapping tools and techniques.

We can do this in our institutions, too. We may have specific practices that prevent certain types of abuse. But we can also often afford to give agency to individuals, knowing most of them mean well and will do good with it, while employing individual judgment on a case-by-case basis to decide if a specific thing is okay. We can set boundaries ahead of time to facilitate our decisions (you can see an example in the explicit leniency policy discussed in this post).

And also, to me, there is some degree of acceptable loss here. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt until their behavior forms a pattern, which happens at two or three incidents. So that first time, and sometimes the second time, they can take advantage of me. I have decided that I’d rather get fooled a time or two than live a constantly suspicious, hardened existence.

2. Journaling Exercises

I kept a journal for about a decade where I practiced uncovering the unvarnished, embarrassing feelings that influenced my decisions. I learned to admit, and sit with, the fact that I did such-and such because I was jealous of so-and-so,

or I was trying to show up so-and-so,

or I had a crush on so-and-so and wanted her to think I was cool (sidenote, this has never worked for me, lol).

At first I struggled to name the base motivations that drove me. I had a lot of practice denying feelings that I was ashamed of; I grew up gay below the Mason-Dixon. I could absolutely rock an emotional coverup job—bury that shit so deep, and disguise the chasm with false pretenses so convincingly, that even I myself would never find it.

Almost.

The journal helped me learn to disinter, without judgment, why I felt the way I did.

I believe that practice made it easier for me—in a very real way made it possible for me—to admit “Yeah, I worry about giving students agency in my class because I’m afraid if they can all do well, then that makes my class (and me) less valid. And I have this fear because I am, despite my best efforts, still bought into the systems of oppression that I so self-righteously oppose.”

I happen to believe that subversive feelings like these work much the way that bias in hiring does: everybody has their shameful thoughts. Pretending a problem isn’t there doesn’t get us closer to abolishing it. Only by admitting it, acknowledging it, and then taking deliberate steps to counteract it do we end up making progress.

3. Processing Partners

I’ll be honest: sometimes it’s hard not to get defensive. I still struggle to respond well in many, many moments. So I’ve learned to get some help when I feel myself reacting with defensiveness.

I have colleagues and friends to whom I can go to share hard feedback I have received, and to whom I can vent about how I am feeling, who will listen to me without judging me but without validating my frustration. We have a conversation, and their compassion and perspective help me to get from that place of frustration to a plan of action.

I have written before about how to identify processing partners, how to ask them for help, and how to share your expectations with them (so they don’t feel obligated to just agree with you or tell you your feelings are justified). That guide is right here.

Conclusion

We talked about way we focus on protecting the existing distribution of power rather than redistributing it to unlock a higher collective potential. I shared how I see this show up in tech companies, companies in general, and even in teaching.

We also discussed how defensiveness shows up in our culture around feedback (or rather its absence), and why folks focus on defending against feedback rather than addressing it.

Finally, we discussed some tactics that have helped me: imagining abuse prevention as a patchwork solution, working through journaling exercises, and establishing processing partners. I have found these steps helpful for improving my ability as an individual to engage with both my own defensiveness and the defensiveness baked into the systems around me.

We’ll look next in this series at another element of white supremacy culture: valuing quantity over quality. In the meantime, here’s the link to the full series so far.

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