Explainers

Basecamp and the Social Forces Behind So Many Public Implosions

The nature of work is dramatically changing due to forces like technology and inclusion. Workplaces ignore these forces at their own, and often public, peril.

A lot can happen in a week these days. You can share updated company policies on a Monday and, by that Friday, over a third of your staff can tender their resignation in response. While the internet is already teeming with takes on what happened at Basecamp (start here if this is news to you), at NOBL we decided to take a step back and look at the broader forces behind this type of public implosion.

First, as society has reckoned with systemic discrimination and inequity, workplaces have had to become more inclusive; not just more inclusive of historically marginalized groups but of individual differences and even an individual’s different personas. “Bring your whole self to work” is a thoroughly modern concept meant to highlight the difference between your work- and non-work-self. “Whole self” was invented in just the last thirty years along with the concept of measuring engagement at work. Employers and employees are grappling with a more diverse workforce and also what it means to bring more of one’s self to work (including elements like intolerant views or passion for social causes). The tension within Basecamp ratcheted up when employees questioned an intolerant “Best Names” list and whether it promoted and was the product of white supremacy.

Second, as workplace demographics have changed, our views on leadership have changed as well. Since time immemorial, our default concept of leadership has been of the “great man.” A lone, rugged, charismatic (and male) individual that was predestined to muster followers and their unwavering devotion. An individual born to lead, not made. In recent years, we’ve seen the failure of such role models and have as a global society experimented with new concepts like servant leadership and forms of shared governance. These models create new paths for more diverse leadership, yet as a society we still reward “great man” leaders (even outright autocrats) with attention and admiration. Amid banning political speech at work, Basecamp’s founders also dismantled its DEI committee and forbade any committees moving forward, instead reverting all authority back to individuals (and themselves).

Third and now more than ever, consumers want businesses to play a positive role in society. The concept of a brand was first invented to connote product quality and consistency, now brands (and the organizations behind them) have to mirror back the core values and aspirational beliefs of their consumers. The desire for organizations to benefit society may have first been measured among consumers, but workers now too want their workplaces to benefit society and reflect their values. However, this desire for virtuous organizations is often in conflict with the mechanisms of shareholder returns. Moreover, organizations have quite the challenge to reflect the values of a diverse population of customers and employees who themselves hold polarized values. Last year, in the wake of racial justice protests, Basecamp’s founders themselves encouraged employees to read books on racial justice and 20 of the company’s 58 employees joined a DEI committee to advance Basecamp’s role in social justice.

Fourth and quite recently, the medium of work has gone digital by default. Marshall McLuhan would remind us that the “medium is the message.” That our tools shape how we behave and that it takes significant time for us to truly grasp how new mediums may affect us as individuals and as a society. So many teams are trying to replicate in-person interactions with digital tools like asynchronous chat, not fully realizing how those tools are altering attitudes and behaviors. In one of his posts addressing the controversy, co-founder David Hanson acknowledged that, “It’s also a really hard time. We’ve always been a remote company, but we’ve never gone a year and a half without seeing each other. Normally, we’d all have met up thrice during this time to recharge, reconnect, and rehumanize.”

Fifth and finally, the great leap in information technology in the 21st century is social media. Across nearly every pocket of the planet, we can distribute information instantaneously and gather urgent and visible public support for and against people and ideas. Company founders are using this tool to promote their organizations and themselves. Workers are equally using this tool to organize movements and share their lived experiences without the filter of corporate comms. Within minutes of Basecamp’s announcement, customers and complete strangers were sorting themselves into fans and detractors. When sentiment largely fell negative, the co-founders took to their own feeds and platforms to defend their choices to the public.

Reading from what has been published by employees and journalists, Basecamp as an organization was deeply enmeshed with these forces. Their organization grappled (via digital tools) with becoming a more inclusive workplace and with defining their role in societal change. Amid internal conflict, the founders took to social media to assert and defend their leadership. Their employees and the public answered back en masse. And given the pervasiveness of these forces, Basecamp seems less of a unique event and more a harbinger of what’s to come (and perhaps what’s to come to a close). If you consider what has also happened at organizations like Zappos, Gimlet Media, Bon Appetit, and Coinbase (which itself banned political speech but saw far less of an exodus), the trend becomes all too obvious.

In response to these forces, we encourage organisations and their leaders to:

  • Accept help. Business as usual is done and dusted. Workplaces are experiencing waves of change and it’s OK to seek outside perspectives and support. Ignore what culture has taught you about being a “great man leader,” and embrace coaching and development that will help you unlock new leadership strategies and avoid feelings of isolation, ego threat, and personal crisis. Your organization will inevitably have to address these larger social forces, so now’s the time to engage organizational design, change management, leadership development, and DEI partners. 
  • Tolerate discomfort. Jennifer Richeson, a psychologist at Yale, has called inclusion “the democratization of discomfort.” Those who have historically felt the least discomfort in the organization should probably expect to feel the most discomfort as conversations around equity and inclusion ramp up. In the face of that discomfort, don’t lash out at others or latch onto overly simplistic solutions (like suddenly declaring an end to politics at work). Others in the organization will likely feel uncomfortable, too. They are looking at leaders’ responses to determine their own. Leaders need to set a mindful, self-aware, example. Of course, if discomfort spills over into actual harm (to individuals and to the organization’s continued existence) you may need to define ground rules for when and how these topics should be engaged.
  • Engage to be understood. Digital tools may have made it easier to communicate and get tasks done, but the meaning and intention of digitally-enabled interactions can easily be misconstrued. In fully remote or hybrid workplaces, leaders must invest more time in getting to know their team, sharing their perspectives, walking folks through why a decision was made, and following up to ensure they were understood. Any whiff of misunderstanding or conflict should immediately be addressed, or it can quickly fester into resentment. Always remember, leadership isn’t just making decisions, it’s bringing others together through the impacts of decisions (hopefully into higher states of shared performance).
  • Remember who you serve. With a bit of distance, it’s rather strange how publicly the whole Basecamp affair played out. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people likely engaged in some way over how a company of 58 employees was to be governed. But this is of course because the founders of Basecamp built commercially-rewarding public personas and are deeply invested in retaining their popularity (popularity largely gained because of their contrarianism). To hear that the founders shared these new policies publicly even before employees had a chance to see them begs the question for whom the policy changes were really intended. As more companies build themselves in public, often as a marketing exercise, it’s critical to not conflate employees and audience. An audience can be fickle and momentary, employees though need to be engaged in an authentic and sustained relationship to remain committed to the organization’s goals and identity.
  • Acknowledge loss. When people resist change, they’re actually resisting loss. All of us in 2021 are reeling from loss, inside and outside of work. Loss of time. Loss of control. Loss of narrative. Loss of familiarity. Loss of connection. Loss of competence and even pride. Loss aversion drives so much of human decision making and an inability to recognize those signs in ourselves during a time of change can lead to rash decision making and with it, unintended consequences. Moreover, failing to acknowledge feelings of loss in others can lead to outright resistance and disastrous attempts at change (such as a third of your staff resigning in one afternoon).
Published May 10, 2021

2 Replies to Basecamp and the Social Forces Behind So Many Public Implosions

    1. Oh, thank you for the correction. We’ve updated the post. We heard the quote secondhand in a podcast that attributed it to “Jennifer Richardson,” hence our error. Apologies to Dr. Richeson.

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