Why high context communication drives inclusion in the workplace

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High-context communications: the power of the network

Conventional wisdom holds that organizations are driven by hierarchy, and can only succeed with strong and charismatic leaders. But with new generations entering the workforce, this is changing—for organizations to succeed going forward, they’ll need to embrace a network model that empowers every employee. Making this change will call for high-context communications that convey greater meaning, and for allowing the rank-and-file to lead the conversation.

Video Transcript

Malcolm Gladwell:

Hi, everyone, it’s a pleasure to meet you all. Thank you, Nicole for that very overly generous introduction. I’m sorry, we can’t all be doing this in-person, but hopefully very soon we’ll all be somewhere warm and fabulous together doing a conference the old fashioned way. So I wanted to talk about, actually pick up on some of the themes that Nicole was talking about. I want to talk about communication, and what effective communication looks like in the moment that we’re in.

And by moment I mean, both the pandemic moment, but also the broader moment. The moment when millennials, and Gen Z, and the digital generation is starting to make a real impact on the workforce. And I think that’s a really relevant topic, because we’re all here, obviously, to talk about a communications tool. And the logical question from that is, how should we use that tool? And particularly, how should we use that tool now?

So, what I thought I would do is tell a story, a case study taken from the news, something that happened very recently, and walk through how I think the company involved made a mistake and what we can learn from them. And it’s a story that involves a woman named Alexi McCammond. Some of you may have read about this, it just happened a few months ago. She’s 27 years old, African American. She was born in Rockford, Illinois, went to a pretty tough High School in majority, economically disadvantaged high school in Rockford. She’s a grad, gets a scholarship to the University of Chicago, first generation in her family to go to college, and starts writing there for a series of publications. Graduates, enters journalism, and she’s a star. She very rapidly rises and by her mid-20s, she’s covering Biden in the last national election campaign. She’s named to Forbes as 30 under 30, and she is offered a job at the beginning of this year to be the new editor of Teen Vogue magazine.

So, Teen Vogue is owned by Conde Nast, that’s the pinnacle of American journalism. But then it all falls apart. Within days of being named to this position, a series of tweets are on earth that she had written when she was 17 years old. She had gotten a bad grade on a math test, and so she wrote a series of angry social media posts about her TA, in which she used derogatory language about her Asian TA.

Conde Nast had known about these tweets, Alexi McCammond had apologized for them, she had deleted them, she had expressed remorse about them. And for the executives of Conde Nast who hired her, that apology was sufficient. But it wasn’t sufficient for the employees of Teen Vogue, and it also was insufficient for some of the advertisers. So when her hiring was announced, 20 of the employees of Teen Vogue took to Twitter, and they posted a statement, basically saying how upset they were about this hiring. McCammond did apologize again, and I’m going to read you her apology on Twitter.

“You’ve seen some offensive idiotic tweets from when I was a teenager that perpetuated harmful and racist stereotypes about Asian Americans. I apologized for them years ago, but I want to be clear today. I apologize deeply to all of you, the pain this has caused. There’s no excuse for language like that.” So once again she apologizes, but it isn’t enough. Social media takes over it, the story kind of grows in leaps and bounds, two advertisers at Teen Vogue threatened to pull their campaigns and McCammond is forced to resign.

Now, I should say that I was one of those people who took to social media to chime in on this controversy. I was and I remain very upset that McCammond was forced to resign. I don’t think anyone should ever lose a job as an adult for something they said as a teenager. I think we should allow people to mature, and grow, and make mistakes. And I think that as human beings, we are obliged to offer forgiveness to people who have committed transgressions and complain about them.

So, I was angry and I remain angry about this particular case, but my anger is not the crucial thing here. What I’m going to talk about instead was the way that Conde Nast handled this controversy, because I can think we can all agree that they screwed up big time. They wanted to hire a promising young, diverse candidate for a prominent job. They knew she had posted these stupid tweets as a teenager, they knew she had apologized for them. And they accepted her apology. They wanted to give her a second chance, and the whole thing blew up in her face. Their advertisers threatened to both, their staff was incredibly unhappy. And they were left in this incredibly embarrassing position.

I mean, think about it, they run a magazine called Teen Vogue, which is supposed to instruct girls about how to become women. It’s supposed to instruct people who are in the middle of the most complicated and confusing time of their life about how to mature and be adults. And here they have an example of a young woman who went through something complicated and confusing when she was a teenager. This is a woman who is a case study of the reason why their magazine exists. And what did they do when confronted with this complicated and confusing situation? They threw up their hands and said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you can’t work anymore.”

I mean, that is not A+ leadership. So my question is, what can we learn from the mistakes that Conde Nast made in this case? What does this incident teach us about how to communicate with your staff? So, I want to focus on two ideas that I think help us understand this case. One has to do with the consequences of this generational shift in the workplace. And the other has to do with this particular moment, this kind of pandemic moment that we’re in. And then I want to offer a suggestion for how I think Conde Nast should have handled this particular controversy.

I’ll start with the generational argument, and I’m going to warn you that I’m going to go off on a tangent. But the tangent, I promise you, I will come back to the case at hand. I like to go on long tangents, as any of you who have read any of my writing know. So, let’s talk about the generational issue that I think is at the core of this. Like many of you, at least some of you on this call, I’m a baby boomer. I was born in the last year of the baby boom. And if you want to ask me, what was the most iconic social movement of my generation? I would say, “Oh, it’s Martin Luther King, and in particular, is probably Martin Luther King’s famous Birmingham campaign of 1963.”

So, Birmingham was in the South in the 60s, probably the most racially divided city, and the police chief there was a truly horrible human being named Bull Connor. And King moves into Birmingham in 1963 and decided to take on Bull Connor, and try and bring segregation to an end in the most divided city in the South. And he sits down with all of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, all of the pastors of the black churches, and he plots out a very, very precise plan of action called Project C, for Project Confrontation. And his intention is to try and bait Bull Connor into an overreaction.

And what he does is he plans a series of marches, but first of all, he trains all of the members of his movement in the politics of nonviolent protest that he has taken from Mahatma Gandhi. Because remember, King went to India and studied with Gandhi about how to carry out these kinds of protests. And he also has a colleague called James Bevel, who goes into the schools of Birmingham and also trains the kids of Birmingham in how to conduct themselves in nonviolent protest.

And he sends out wave after wave of protesters into the marches, in the streets of Birmingham. And Bull Connor, just arrest them all, and then King would send out another wave and Bull Connor would arrest them. And finally, Bull Connor runs out of space in the jails of Birmingham. So King keeps sending waves of marches, and now Bull Connor has to respond in some other way than just simply arresting them. And Connor brings out the dogs, and he brings out the firemen with their water hoses because he intends to try and disperse the marchers that way.

And King at this point deploys to kids, he brings the kids out. And Connor, of course, if you know your history you know, he seeks the dog on the children. The dogs on the children, and King has invited every journalist in North America to take note of this moment when the racist chief of police in Birmingham is seeking German Shepherds on 11 and 12 year old kids, and they’re there with the television cameras, and the photographers are there for all the newspapers. And those pictures run on the front of every newspaper around the world.

And the moment King realizes that he has baited Bull Connor into this overreaction, he knows that he’s won. He knows and sure enough, a year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes. And people always said of that groundbreaking piece of legislation that the Civil Rights Act of 64 was written in the streets of Birmingham, that that’s what King was able to accomplish with what he did in that city.

So, those of you who are like me, baby boomers, when we say that that’s the iconic social movement of our time, what do we mean? Well, we mean that a social movement looks like a military campaign. It has a leader, it has a clear strategy, and it has an ideology. And if you look at all of the revolutionary movements of my generation, Castro in Cuba, [Juche 00:11:21], in North Korea, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, they all look like that. They have this clear leader, they have a strategy that’s being followed, and they have an ideology that guides them, that is a part of their movement.

Now, if you are a member of Gen Z, the digital age, if you’re a millennial, and I ask that same question, what is the iconic social movement of your generation? What would the answer be? Well, the answer would probably be the Black Lives protests of last summer. The protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. An extraordinary set of marches and protests across the United States, probably the most sustained moment of civic unrest since 1968 in this country.

Now, let’s compare last summer to Birmingham. Did the George Floyd protests have a leader like Martin Luther King? No, they did not. There were people who were behind Black Lives Matter, but they were not front and center. They weren’t household names, they weren’t directing everything with the same kind of precision that Martin Luther King did. Was it the case that Black Lives Matter had an ideology like King had an ideology? No. In fact, one of the things that was striking and in some ways so moving about Black Lives Matter last summer, was their most an unifying ideology.

You had in some cities, police officers marched in the Black Lives Matter protests alongside progressives who had radically different ideas about how the police are to function in society. This ideologically coherent movement the way it was in 63 when King had a clear agenda that he wanted to bring about. This was a people from every walk of life who were joining in the moment to protest what happened to George Floyd.

Did the protests last summer have a strategy? In Birmingham in 63, you did not take a step without the approval of Martin Luther King. Was that the case last summer? No, it wasn’t. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous. King spent a year planning what happened in Birmingham. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous, they were planned overnight. They were plotted out in the moment on Twitter, and Facebook, and other social media. What passes for a protest in my generation, and what passes for a protest to today’s generation could not be more different.

Now, what’s the difference? Well, my generation took it for granted that the optimal mode of organization was the hierarchy. My grandfather served in the military, and so did my great grandfather, they were born of a system that said that when you tried to do something in the world, you use the hierarchy. And what is the hierarchy? A hierarchy has three components. A hierarchy is something that is closed, that there was this clear line that separates those who are part of the movement and those who aren’t. A hierarchy is disciplined, there’s a set of rules about how you operate, and if you are at the bottom of the hierarchy, you follow the rules.

And thirdly, a hierarchy is centralized. Authority is held by a small group of people at the center of the organization. And we took it for granted that when you did anything, that’s what you used, closed, disciplined, centralized. Now, here’s where we differ from the current generation. The current generation does not take it for granted that the hierarchy is the default mode of organization. They take it for granted that the network is the default mode of social organization. And what is the network? Well, look at all of the social protests that have happened in recent years, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter.

What are they? They’re all networks, they all look the same. And what is a network? A network is open, not closed. Anyone can join. It’s flexible, not disciplined. These are networks that respond in the moment that change, and morph, and evolve according to the challenges they face. And they are decentralized, not centralized. They only have one general in charge like Martin Luther King, power was held loosely by all kinds of people at the fringes of the movement.

Every now and again, I have these old fogy conversations with people who are like myself, of an older generation, and we say, “The millennials, they feel like a different species. I can’t understand them. I don’t know where they’re coming from.” They’re not a different species, and we can understand where they come from. They simply operate by a different set of assumptions about how the world ought to be organized, they’re network people, not hierarchy people.

I used to work for a magazine at Conde Nast, The New Yorker magazine, which right now, like many media organizations is in the middle of a very bitter union dispute. The junior staff is organized and is really on the verge of a strike, the first strike in the history of the New Yorker magazine. And what’s fascinating, if you know something about the labor unrest at the New Yorker right now is that it does not resemble a traditional labor dispute. This is not about workers versus management. This is about millennials versus boomers.

In every way, this is a conflict that proceeds along generational lines. The New Yorker was organized 75 years ago as a classic hierarchy, as a small group of very powerful editors who were in charge of the magazine. And there was a very strict set of rules that govern how the New Yorker operates. And for 75 years, that’s been fine. But now there is a cohort of younger people at that magazine, and that’s not the way they organize their world. They think of the magazine as a network, and they say, “Well, if it’s a network, then power should be decentralized. If this is a network, then why are we expected to work our way up from the bottom, slowly and painfully over many years? Why are we expected to make nothing when we start? We’re all in this together, shouldn’t we all be equal partners in the fortunes of this magazine?” That’s the tension I’m talking about between hierarchy and network.

Now, is the hierarchy better than the network? Sometimes people my age want to argue, that our way is better. I don’t think that’s a relevant consideration. I think networks are good at some things, they’re incredibly resilient, they’re incredibly adaptable, they’re easy to form, and they are bad at other things. There are some things that hierarchies are better at doing. Hierarchies are really good at carrying out a very complex task, on the other hand, hierarchies, you got to have a good leader. If you don’t have Martin Luther King, you’re sunk. If you don’t have Nelson Mandela, there’s no way you can overturn apartheid, you need that kind of high quality leader.

Networks and hierarchies are just different. I think the more relevant question is, which of those two models, of those two paradigms is winning right now? And to my mind, the answer is obvious, the network’s winning. The model that the millennials and Gen Z has, their default model is the one that’s taking over the workplace. And if you’re someone who is in a position of leadership in the workplace, you have to understand that, that the rules are rapidly changing, and that the hierarchy is very soon going to be a thing of the past.

So, let’s get back to the story I started with, Conde Nast and Teen Vogue. What does this mean? Well, what it means is that if you’re Conde Nast, you cannot hire editors the way you’ve been hiring them for 75 years. The conventional way of bringing in new leadership at magazines, at Conde Nast was the bosses up on the top floor decided who they were going to hire, and announced that hire to the staff. It was like, “This is your new leader.” And that was that, you never say if you’re staff, you just accepted who the new boss was.

But now in the network world, and that’s not how employees think. Their expectation is, “Wait a minute, we’re all in this together. You’re going to bring in a new leader, shouldn’t we be part of the conversation about who that new leader is? Shouldn’t we be involved in this most crucial of decisions about our publication?” I said that the 20 members of Teen Vogue published a tweet explaining their position. And let me just read on the McCammond hiring, let me just read to you what the tweet said.

In a moment, historically anti Asian violence, and amid the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community, we as the staff of Teen Vogue fully reject these sentiments. We are … This is the crucial sentence. We are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful in maintaining the integrity granted to us by our audience. Listen to that second sentence, we are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful. They’re not saying, “We hate this hire, we hate this woman.” They’re saying, “We’re in this together, can’t we talk about it first as a community? Can’t we have a conversation?”

And if you realize where they’re coming from, that they have the network in mind, you realize that’s a totally legitimate request from where they’re standing. Okay. Second point, when does this whole controversy happen? It happens in the middle of a pandemic. And I think it’s pretty clear that if there hadn’t been a pandemic, I really doubt that this incident would have blown up the way it has, for a couple of reasons. One is obviously that we’re all on edge, and in this moment, lots of things are blowing up that wouldn’t ordinarily blow up. But also I think that we’re talking about a staff here that is in their 20s, it’s Teen Vogue.

And I think it’s really clear that the burden of this pandemic has fallen disproportionately on the young, that it’s not 57-year-olds like me who have really struggled over the last year. No, it’s people in their teens and in their 20s. People for whom they’re at a stage in their life when sociability and interaction is at the key of what it means to be alive, what it means to find your identity, what it means to learn about the world. And for the last year, that ability to be social and to interact with others has been taken away, it’s become impossible.

There’s a concept in psychology that I think is really useful here. And that’s this distinction between high context and low context communication. And low context communication is cut and dry communication, abbreviated, task-oriented depersonalized, it’s about problem solving, about getting things done. High context communication is the opposite. It’s very personal, it’s face to face, or at least it’s individualized. It’s drawn out, it’s nuanced, it’s sensitive. It’s about relationships, not about tasks. Relies very heavily on nonverbal elements, it’s multiple sources of information. It’s communication that’s embedded in culture, and relationships.

And all of us in a typical world rely on both of these, wherever we think they’re appropriate. And one of the ways that you’re an effective leader, or an effective person, or friend is that you understand the distinction between these two types. Think about the difference between the phrase, she broke up with me, and she broke up with me by text. Aware of the difference, same act. Aware of the difference and how you feel about what happened, because one is high context, and one is low context.

Or I lost my job today, or my boss fired me today, or I lost my job today by email. World of difference in how you feel about what happened to you, because losing your job is something that requires high context. And if you lose your job, if you’re informed on email, it’s not appropriate because that’s low context, right? To be an effective leader is to understand the distinction between those two types of communication.

So what happened when the pandemic came along? An awful lot of communication that would have been high context became low context. We haven’t had face-to-face, we haven’t had communication that’s grounded in relationships. We haven’t had people reaching out on a personal level. What we’ve had is group Zooms, what we’ve had is like all kinds of people responding in … Sorry, my cat just walked in and pushed open the door. What we’ve had is all kinds of people responding in the moment and not paying attention to the particulars and context of any relationship.

So, let’s combine these two ideas, and think about how Conde Nast handled this case of Teen Vogue. First of all, we’ve got a group of employees who are operating on a network set of assumptions, that they ought to be included in this conversation, Conde Nast did not include them in the conversation, didn’t reach out to them to have a conversation about who they were going to hire. They simply announced that this is your new boss. And secondly, that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and this was a situation with someone coming in, in an era of controversy that cried out for high context communication. And did they have high context communication around this, in the middle of this very difficult situation? No, they didn’t.

They had a controversy that played out on Twitter, on Instagram, and in press releases. The three most low context form of communication imaginable. So is it any wonder these things got out of control? So what should Teen Vogue have done? Well, first of all, they needed to reach out to every member of the staff before they announced the hiring of Alexi McCammond. And they should have said, “Let’s have a conversation about what’s happening.” They need to understand that people who belong to the network paradigm require that kind of conversation first. They need to be included in these conversations, if decisions are going to sit right with them.

And secondly, they needed to understand that, “Wait a second, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, our staff are isolated, and lonely, and off by themselves, and feeling cut off from the world at a time in their life where they require something very different.” So, that communication has got to be personal. It’s got to be individualized. We need to talk with each member of the staff, one-on-one, to explain to them what’s happening. It had to be a decision in other words that was communicating with feeling and with meaning.

My point is that how you communicate with your employees really matters, especially when your employees had an expectation that they ought to be, need to be included in conversations. And especially in the middle of a pandemic, when people are isolated and lonely. And what you say matters. You have to be able to have a conversation that reaches people, that seems real. That seems like it’s consequential, and intentional, and deliberate.

So, if they had done that, if they had communicated meaningfully, would they have had egg in their face? No, they wouldn’t. Would they have avoided this controversy? Yes, they would. Would they have had advertisers bolting? No, they wouldn’t. Now, because I’m a writer, and because what happened to Alexi McCammond really matter to me, really upset me, I’m going to read to you what I think the leadership of Conde Nast should have said to their employees. “We would like to hire Alexi McCammond as our new editor in chief, because we believe she’s a fine journalist. But in making that offer, we have taken a chance, we have gambled that she is not the same person at 27 that she was at 17. And we have gambled that when she says she’s genuinely remorseful about what she said when she was a teenager, that she is telling the truth. We would ask all of you to take the same chance on her, because there can be no genuine diversity for anyone in the workforce if we’re not willing to extend that basic human courtesy to others.

So, before you pass judgment on who she is, or what she believes, or the threats she poses to your wellbeing, meet her, talk to her, challenge her, take the measure of her, see if she is willing to convince you of her transformation. And at the same time, take the opportunity to learn something equally valuable of yourself, that you’re able to offer forgiveness to others, even when they know at some point, they have said things that were profoundly hurtful to you. We are a magazine that intends to instruct girls on how to be women. If we cannot be open to the possibility of another’s redemption, then why are we putting out this magazine every day?”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask of intelligent adults who run a multinational corporation, that they can communicate meaningfully like that to their employees. And if they were not willing to prepare for the ground with their employees in that way, if they were not willing to communicate meaningfully, if we’re not up to the challenge of running a modern workplace in a difficult time, they should never have offered that job to Alexi McCammond. That’s what made me so angry. All of us in positions of authority must do better. Thank you.

Now, back to you, Nicole, I’d be happy to answer some questions.

Nicole:

Great, thank you, Malcolm. It’s just so interesting that the last point about high context communications and low context communications, is there anything different from the written communication that employee would read, or should this be delivered at a town hall? Unfortunately, not everyone could be there. Is it in video? Do you have a point of view on the people who need to receive that communication and change the way they feel about it?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I don’t think it matters, specifically, what modality you’re using, I think it’s how you use that modality. So all the things you mentioned help, I think what matters is that the person that you’re talking to has to believe that you are talking to them as an individual, that you’re not just sending out some mass communication that is indifferent to the particulars of the situation, or they’re not even more importantly, it’s important that they not read a press release, or read a third party telling them what’s going on. It has to feel personal, that’s really what high context is.

This is high context communication that you and I are having right now, Nicole, because you asked me a question and I’m answering that question. And so both of us have an opportunity to think about and reflect on the nature of our interaction. If I was just randomly reading off questions that had been asked in advance, before people even knew what I was going to talk about, that’s not high context, that just feels like I’m filling in the Q&A portion at the end of the speech. And so I think it’s about the spirit into which the communication is entered.

Nicole:

That’s really helpful. And another piece that’s so intriguing on the network and the hierarchy, and in the context of business, you obviously can’t have full network to get things done, especially if you’re the CEO, you’re a leader, you have to deliver certain things, you have to execute on a strategy. What I heard you saying was there’s no way to be able to do that in an older framework, or to people who need that that newer network framework. So can you talk a little bit about blending those, especially in the workplace?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah. So it’s funny, I think what we’re moving towards is a hybrid model, really. It’s funny, I started a company two and a half years ago now with my best friend, and we’re up to a very small, we’re like 50 employees. And we have lots of millennials, and we have these conversations. It’s not that they’re fully in the network mode. But they still understand that we need to have leaders and managers and, a CEO, and all that stuff, but they just expect us, those of us who are in leadership, to behave differently. And they really do want to be involved in a way that … When I was 25, I had zero expectation that leaders were going to involve me in key decisions.

They these guys want to be involved. They don’t think that they should control those decisions. But their point is, I’m working here is my company. My identity is tied up in this place, involve me in this decision, keep me in the loop, listen to what I have to say, you don’t have to follow it, but at least listen. That’s what I think is a difference.

For people my age, it’s hard to make that shift, because it’s not the way things were, in the 80s when I started out my bosses were not involving me in key decisions. But that’s what the network model means. I just think is that they want the kind of day to day communication within the organization to feel different, to feel more inclusive.

Nicole:

And how do you convince leaders who maybe were brought up in that same form of leadership and have experiences where that worked well, or that’s all they knew? How do you convince them that they need to change and that high context communication has to be the core of them, driving that strategy?

Malcolm Gladwell:

It is really hard. I mean, I don’t think this [inaudible 00:34:58] otherwise. I mean, and I’m sure you’ve had more of these conversations that I have, but I have had literally dozens of conversations with people of my generation in positions of leadership, who just roll their eyes at how hard it is to work with millennials and Gen Z. I mean, they have no patience for it, they want to get rid of them all, they think they’re all nuts. That is not the appropriate response.

People of my generation need to stop saying that millennials are from Mars, they’re not from Mars, they just have a different way of thinking about how the world should be organized. And by the way, the way they think about that is in many ways totally legit. So I just think it has to start with that recognition. The kind of casual contempt that my generation I think has, we need to put a sock at.

Nicole:

Casual contempt, I like that. No, it’s interesting. When I’m speaking to CEOs, it’s the ones who want to learn from people different than them. They want to hear from millennials, they want to understand what motivates them and ultimately no surprise, those are the leaders that are most effective. How do we think about as we’re moving from hierarchy to network, or at the very least, we have to coexist when we think about the different cascades of leadership, or the effective somebodies line manager on them versus the CEO, maybe if they’re in a company of 100,000 people, is there an opportunity in this network model for new heads that can help lead many powerful movements?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah, that’s a really good point, because what happens in a network model is that power gets pushed out to the edges. That’s the whole idea that you’re … There is a real opportunity here in other words, for people, middle managers, even lower middle managers to play a much larger role in communication, there’s no longer the expectation that everything has to come from the top.

And so there’s, like I said, this is a serious opportunity for organizations to give responsibility to people who would otherwise be overlooked in this role. The thing that’s fascinating to me about networks is there isn’t the same reverence for position. It’s like when I think of the young people in our company, they don’t need, “I’m the president of the company.” They want the president to be involved in these conversations. They just need somebody to be involved in this conversation. They’re not hung up on a title the way that I would have been at that age. So that’s really liberating. I think, like I said, this is good news not bad news.

Nicole:

Yeah, I think that that’s an important point. We talk a lot about democratizing communications, and everybody who’s a leader has to be able to use that effective communication or definitely high context, especially now. We’ve got an interesting question. Do you have an example? The Teen Vogue was great and I loved the way you told the story of course, is there a company that you’ve seen handle one of those situations in the right way? So, they might not have had you to pen that eloquent letter, but have you seen anything recently that’s been the right one?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, by definition, the company that has handled it the right way we wouldn’t have heard about it. The whole point is you do it the right way, you don’t show up in the news.

Nicole:

Good point.

Malcolm Gladwell:

And everyone else who has been laughing at you or rolling their eyes at you … So, I can think of examples in our own. We had an issue in my company where it wasn’t about something that happened within our company was more about the media industry has been very kind of … There’s been a lot of controversies like this, around diversity and around these questions of personal ethics, and we had a moment when some of our younger employees were upset. And this wasn’t my idea but our CEO, my friend Jacob. We called an immediate all staff … There was this pandemic, so it was an all staff Zoom. And we just walked through it. I mean, we had a very open and honest conversation with everyone in the company, and it was emotional, and it was really important.

And the outside world never learned about it. But I think our willingness to kind of … We could have shrugged it off, we’re all super busy, it wasn’t about our company. We just decided we would deal with this. And I think that most people came out of that feeling better about who we are as a company, and our willingness to talk openly about difficult subjects. But it was very much high context. And I took the opportunity to tell the staff, we have many new staff members, and I talked about my parents, and my co founders parents, and the values that they stood for, and how we had created a company in their image.

And I remember saying this and thinking, “This has never …” When I joined the workforce, the idea that my boss would have addressed everyone in the company and talked about his parents, it’s just crazy. At the Washington Post in 1987, no one talked about their parents in terms of leadership. But now we do. By the way, it was kind of great. I mean, it was a good moment, I thought it was appropriate to tell the people in the staff where me and my co-founder came from.

Nicole:

I know, I think the those stories are so important as well, because it defines us as human. Everybody can can relate to a parent and a story and whether it’s struggle or hardship, and I think especially in a pandemic, when we’re craving those personal connections, it’s the stories that bring us together, which is so incredibly powerful.

How do you think about kind of back to the network and, and leaders owning these conversations? So, at your company, or at my company, which we do, we can all sit on Zoom and have a conversation, even a hard one to have. But if you have 10,000, or 50,000, or 100,000, or a million employees in different parts of the world, working different shifts, how do you translate these conversations across the network, and also in a way that is somehow unified? Because you have to imagine that there could be somebody at often one of the nodes, who goes off the range a bit. So how would you think about that?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast set of rules, I think the important thing is that these conversations be … I use that free phrase, they should have feeling and meaning. And I think that that’s the key that whoever is engaged in these kinds of conversations needs to stop and think first, that how can I communicate those two things. So feeling would be an emotion and meaning would be an intention and that’s what people are looking for in communication, that there is either a feeling or an intention behind it.

When we think it’s just kind of rote, we tune it out. When we think that there is that kind of consideration behind it, we embrace it. So that would be my first, and part of that is that there’s [inaudible 00:43:50] example of the advantage in using these communication modes to be unpredictable. The story I just told about this, when I shared about me and my co-founders parents to the staff, that’s an unpredictable communication. And that’s what made it powerful, is it stood out. People are like, “Oh wow, I thought we were having a business meeting.”

You should do it every time. But like mixing in that kind of thing … And it gives I think that communication mode, more kind of richness. When people understand that this is not just a way to communicate our fourth quarter numbers, or to give a new HR policy. This is a way for leadership to share something that matters to them with their colleagues in the company like that that’s I think what could make it real.

Nicole:

Yeah, and again, probably contextual. There’s a story to tell, maybe around strategy or vision that wouldn’t necessarily be the HR policy. So, one last, we’re about at time. But if you could leave everybody with one thing, I mean, I’ve learned three things to think differently, but if they’re going to go back to their organizations, whether they’re helping a CEO with their communication, whether they are a CEO, they’re a leader responsible for a group of people, what would you give them?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I would say that understanding the network model, and what people who have that paradigm want and need does not threaten your authority as a leader, it enhances it. So the instinctive thought is always, “Oh, if these people want to be part of the decision then I no longer have autonomy over my decision making.” Like, you can imagine the people of Conde Nast saying, “I want to hire Alexis McCammond, but if I open up the conversation to the whole staff then I have a situation with the staff for choosing their leader, and that’s crazy. You know that, right? And get all [inaudible 00:46:09].

But I think between us that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about ceding control or decisions to everyone else. We’re talking about a kind of consideration of employees that … What you need to know is you’re explaining your process to them, and inviting them to understand why you’re thinking the way you’re thinking. That’s not threatening, that’s actually kind of empowering for both the leader and the organization.

Nicole:

I love that. Malcolm, thank you so much for joining us. As usual, your stories were incredible, and I know that everyone now has a new perspective for the network model and what they can do personally, to help use that to really connect with and motivate their people. So thank you so much for joining us.

Malcolm Gladwell:

Thank you, Nicole.

 

Expand Transcript

Video Transcript

Malcolm Gladwell:

Hi, everyone, it’s a pleasure to meet you all. Thank you, Nicole for that very overly generous introduction. I’m sorry, we can’t all be doing this in-person, but hopefully very soon we’ll all be somewhere warm and fabulous together doing a conference the old fashioned way. So I wanted to talk about, actually pick up on some of the themes that Nicole was talking about. I want to talk about communication, and what effective communication looks like in the moment that we’re in.

And by moment I mean, both the pandemic moment, but also the broader moment. The moment when millennials, and Gen Z, and the digital generation is starting to make a real impact on the workforce. And I think that’s a really relevant topic, because we’re all here, obviously, to talk about a communications tool. And the logical question from that is, how should we use that tool? And particularly, how should we use that tool now?

So, what I thought I would do is tell a story, a case study taken from the news, something that happened very recently, and walk through how I think the company involved made a mistake and what we can learn from them. And it’s a story that involves a woman named Alexi McCammond. Some of you may have read about this, it just happened a few months ago. She’s 27 years old, African American. She was born in Rockford, Illinois, went to a pretty tough High School in majority, economically disadvantaged high school in Rockford. She’s a grad, gets a scholarship to the University of Chicago, first generation in her family to go to college, and starts writing there for a series of publications. Graduates, enters journalism, and she’s a star. She very rapidly rises and by her mid-20s, she’s covering Biden in the last national election campaign. She’s named to Forbes as 30 under 30, and she is offered a job at the beginning of this year to be the new editor of Teen Vogue magazine.

So, Teen Vogue is owned by Conde Nast, that’s the pinnacle of American journalism. But then it all falls apart. Within days of being named to this position, a series of tweets are on earth that she had written when she was 17 years old. She had gotten a bad grade on a math test, and so she wrote a series of angry social media posts about her TA, in which she used derogatory language about her Asian TA.

Conde Nast had known about these tweets, Alexi McCammond had apologized for them, she had deleted them, she had expressed remorse about them. And for the executives of Conde Nast who hired her, that apology was sufficient. But it wasn’t sufficient for the employees of Teen Vogue, and it also was insufficient for some of the advertisers. So when her hiring was announced, 20 of the employees of Teen Vogue took to Twitter, and they posted a statement, basically saying how upset they were about this hiring. McCammond did apologize again, and I’m going to read you her apology on Twitter.

“You’ve seen some offensive idiotic tweets from when I was a teenager that perpetuated harmful and racist stereotypes about Asian Americans. I apologized for them years ago, but I want to be clear today. I apologize deeply to all of you, the pain this has caused. There’s no excuse for language like that.” So once again she apologizes, but it isn’t enough. Social media takes over it, the story kind of grows in leaps and bounds, two advertisers at Teen Vogue threatened to pull their campaigns and McCammond is forced to resign.

Now, I should say that I was one of those people who took to social media to chime in on this controversy. I was and I remain very upset that McCammond was forced to resign. I don’t think anyone should ever lose a job as an adult for something they said as a teenager. I think we should allow people to mature, and grow, and make mistakes. And I think that as human beings, we are obliged to offer forgiveness to people who have committed transgressions and complain about them.

So, I was angry and I remain angry about this particular case, but my anger is not the crucial thing here. What I’m going to talk about instead was the way that Conde Nast handled this controversy, because I can think we can all agree that they screwed up big time. They wanted to hire a promising young, diverse candidate for a prominent job. They knew she had posted these stupid tweets as a teenager, they knew she had apologized for them. And they accepted her apology. They wanted to give her a second chance, and the whole thing blew up in her face. Their advertisers threatened to both, their staff was incredibly unhappy. And they were left in this incredibly embarrassing position.

I mean, think about it, they run a magazine called Teen Vogue, which is supposed to instruct girls about how to become women. It’s supposed to instruct people who are in the middle of the most complicated and confusing time of their life about how to mature and be adults. And here they have an example of a young woman who went through something complicated and confusing when she was a teenager. This is a woman who is a case study of the reason why their magazine exists. And what did they do when confronted with this complicated and confusing situation? They threw up their hands and said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you can’t work anymore.”

I mean, that is not A+ leadership. So my question is, what can we learn from the mistakes that Conde Nast made in this case? What does this incident teach us about how to communicate with your staff? So, I want to focus on two ideas that I think help us understand this case. One has to do with the consequences of this generational shift in the workplace. And the other has to do with this particular moment, this kind of pandemic moment that we’re in. And then I want to offer a suggestion for how I think Conde Nast should have handled this particular controversy.

I’ll start with the generational argument, and I’m going to warn you that I’m going to go off on a tangent. But the tangent, I promise you, I will come back to the case at hand. I like to go on long tangents, as any of you who have read any of my writing know. So, let’s talk about the generational issue that I think is at the core of this. Like many of you, at least some of you on this call, I’m a baby boomer. I was born in the last year of the baby boom. And if you want to ask me, what was the most iconic social movement of my generation? I would say, “Oh, it’s Martin Luther King, and in particular, is probably Martin Luther King’s famous Birmingham campaign of 1963.”

So, Birmingham was in the South in the 60s, probably the most racially divided city, and the police chief there was a truly horrible human being named Bull Connor. And King moves into Birmingham in 1963 and decided to take on Bull Connor, and try and bring segregation to an end in the most divided city in the South. And he sits down with all of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, all of the pastors of the black churches, and he plots out a very, very precise plan of action called Project C, for Project Confrontation. And his intention is to try and bait Bull Connor into an overreaction.

And what he does is he plans a series of marches, but first of all, he trains all of the members of his movement in the politics of nonviolent protest that he has taken from Mahatma Gandhi. Because remember, King went to India and studied with Gandhi about how to carry out these kinds of protests. And he also has a colleague called James Bevel, who goes into the schools of Birmingham and also trains the kids of Birmingham in how to conduct themselves in nonviolent protest.

And he sends out wave after wave of protesters into the marches, in the streets of Birmingham. And Bull Connor, just arrest them all, and then King would send out another wave and Bull Connor would arrest them. And finally, Bull Connor runs out of space in the jails of Birmingham. So King keeps sending waves of marches, and now Bull Connor has to respond in some other way than just simply arresting them. And Connor brings out the dogs, and he brings out the firemen with their water hoses because he intends to try and disperse the marchers that way.

And King at this point deploys to kids, he brings the kids out. And Connor, of course, if you know your history you know, he seeks the dog on the children. The dogs on the children, and King has invited every journalist in North America to take note of this moment when the racist chief of police in Birmingham is seeking German Shepherds on 11 and 12 year old kids, and they’re there with the television cameras, and the photographers are there for all the newspapers. And those pictures run on the front of every newspaper around the world.

And the moment King realizes that he has baited Bull Connor into this overreaction, he knows that he’s won. He knows and sure enough, a year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes. And people always said of that groundbreaking piece of legislation that the Civil Rights Act of 64 was written in the streets of Birmingham, that that’s what King was able to accomplish with what he did in that city.

So, those of you who are like me, baby boomers, when we say that that’s the iconic social movement of our time, what do we mean? Well, we mean that a social movement looks like a military campaign. It has a leader, it has a clear strategy, and it has an ideology. And if you look at all of the revolutionary movements of my generation, Castro in Cuba, [Juche 00:11:21], in North Korea, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, they all look like that. They have this clear leader, they have a strategy that’s being followed, and they have an ideology that guides them, that is a part of their movement.

Now, if you are a member of Gen Z, the digital age, if you’re a millennial, and I ask that same question, what is the iconic social movement of your generation? What would the answer be? Well, the answer would probably be the Black Lives protests of last summer. The protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. An extraordinary set of marches and protests across the United States, probably the most sustained moment of civic unrest since 1968 in this country.

Now, let’s compare last summer to Birmingham. Did the George Floyd protests have a leader like Martin Luther King? No, they did not. There were people who were behind Black Lives Matter, but they were not front and center. They weren’t household names, they weren’t directing everything with the same kind of precision that Martin Luther King did. Was it the case that Black Lives Matter had an ideology like King had an ideology? No. In fact, one of the things that was striking and in some ways so moving about Black Lives Matter last summer, was their most an unifying ideology.

You had in some cities, police officers marched in the Black Lives Matter protests alongside progressives who had radically different ideas about how the police are to function in society. This ideologically coherent movement the way it was in 63 when King had a clear agenda that he wanted to bring about. This was a people from every walk of life who were joining in the moment to protest what happened to George Floyd.

Did the protests last summer have a strategy? In Birmingham in 63, you did not take a step without the approval of Martin Luther King. Was that the case last summer? No, it wasn’t. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous. King spent a year planning what happened in Birmingham. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous, they were planned overnight. They were plotted out in the moment on Twitter, and Facebook, and other social media. What passes for a protest in my generation, and what passes for a protest to today’s generation could not be more different.

Now, what’s the difference? Well, my generation took it for granted that the optimal mode of organization was the hierarchy. My grandfather served in the military, and so did my great grandfather, they were born of a system that said that when you tried to do something in the world, you use the hierarchy. And what is the hierarchy? A hierarchy has three components. A hierarchy is something that is closed, that there was this clear line that separates those who are part of the movement and those who aren’t. A hierarchy is disciplined, there’s a set of rules about how you operate, and if you are at the bottom of the hierarchy, you follow the rules.

And thirdly, a hierarchy is centralized. Authority is held by a small group of people at the center of the organization. And we took it for granted that when you did anything, that’s what you used, closed, disciplined, centralized. Now, here’s where we differ from the current generation. The current generation does not take it for granted that the hierarchy is the default mode of organization. They take it for granted that the network is the default mode of social organization. And what is the network? Well, look at all of the social protests that have happened in recent years, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter.

What are they? They’re all networks, they all look the same. And what is a network? A network is open, not closed. Anyone can join. It’s flexible, not disciplined. These are networks that respond in the moment that change, and morph, and evolve according to the challenges they face. And they are decentralized, not centralized. They only have one general in charge like Martin Luther King, power was held loosely by all kinds of people at the fringes of the movement.

Every now and again, I have these old fogy conversations with people who are like myself, of an older generation, and we say, “The millennials, they feel like a different species. I can’t understand them. I don’t know where they’re coming from.” They’re not a different species, and we can understand where they come from. They simply operate by a different set of assumptions about how the world ought to be organized, they’re network people, not hierarchy people.

I used to work for a magazine at Conde Nast, The New Yorker magazine, which right now, like many media organizations is in the middle of a very bitter union dispute. The junior staff is organized and is really on the verge of a strike, the first strike in the history of the New Yorker magazine. And what’s fascinating, if you know something about the labor unrest at the New Yorker right now is that it does not resemble a traditional labor dispute. This is not about workers versus management. This is about millennials versus boomers.

In every way, this is a conflict that proceeds along generational lines. The New Yorker was organized 75 years ago as a classic hierarchy, as a small group of very powerful editors who were in charge of the magazine. And there was a very strict set of rules that govern how the New Yorker operates. And for 75 years, that’s been fine. But now there is a cohort of younger people at that magazine, and that’s not the way they organize their world. They think of the magazine as a network, and they say, “Well, if it’s a network, then power should be decentralized. If this is a network, then why are we expected to work our way up from the bottom, slowly and painfully over many years? Why are we expected to make nothing when we start? We’re all in this together, shouldn’t we all be equal partners in the fortunes of this magazine?” That’s the tension I’m talking about between hierarchy and network.

Now, is the hierarchy better than the network? Sometimes people my age want to argue, that our way is better. I don’t think that’s a relevant consideration. I think networks are good at some things, they’re incredibly resilient, they’re incredibly adaptable, they’re easy to form, and they are bad at other things. There are some things that hierarchies are better at doing. Hierarchies are really good at carrying out a very complex task, on the other hand, hierarchies, you got to have a good leader. If you don’t have Martin Luther King, you’re sunk. If you don’t have Nelson Mandela, there’s no way you can overturn apartheid, you need that kind of high quality leader.

Networks and hierarchies are just different. I think the more relevant question is, which of those two models, of those two paradigms is winning right now? And to my mind, the answer is obvious, the network’s winning. The model that the millennials and Gen Z has, their default model is the one that’s taking over the workplace. And if you’re someone who is in a position of leadership in the workplace, you have to understand that, that the rules are rapidly changing, and that the hierarchy is very soon going to be a thing of the past.

So, let’s get back to the story I started with, Conde Nast and Teen Vogue. What does this mean? Well, what it means is that if you’re Conde Nast, you cannot hire editors the way you’ve been hiring them for 75 years. The conventional way of bringing in new leadership at magazines, at Conde Nast was the bosses up on the top floor decided who they were going to hire, and announced that hire to the staff. It was like, “This is your new leader.” And that was that, you never say if you’re staff, you just accepted who the new boss was.

But now in the network world, and that’s not how employees think. Their expectation is, “Wait a minute, we’re all in this together. You’re going to bring in a new leader, shouldn’t we be part of the conversation about who that new leader is? Shouldn’t we be involved in this most crucial of decisions about our publication?” I said that the 20 members of Teen Vogue published a tweet explaining their position. And let me just read on the McCammond hiring, let me just read to you what the tweet said.

In a moment, historically anti Asian violence, and amid the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community, we as the staff of Teen Vogue fully reject these sentiments. We are … This is the crucial sentence. We are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful in maintaining the integrity granted to us by our audience. Listen to that second sentence, we are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful. They’re not saying, “We hate this hire, we hate this woman.” They’re saying, “We’re in this together, can’t we talk about it first as a community? Can’t we have a conversation?”

And if you realize where they’re coming from, that they have the network in mind, you realize that’s a totally legitimate request from where they’re standing. Okay. Second point, when does this whole controversy happen? It happens in the middle of a pandemic. And I think it’s pretty clear that if there hadn’t been a pandemic, I really doubt that this incident would have blown up the way it has, for a couple of reasons. One is obviously that we’re all on edge, and in this moment, lots of things are blowing up that wouldn’t ordinarily blow up. But also I think that we’re talking about a staff here that is in their 20s, it’s Teen Vogue.

And I think it’s really clear that the burden of this pandemic has fallen disproportionately on the young, that it’s not 57-year-olds like me who have really struggled over the last year. No, it’s people in their teens and in their 20s. People for whom they’re at a stage in their life when sociability and interaction is at the key of what it means to be alive, what it means to find your identity, what it means to learn about the world. And for the last year, that ability to be social and to interact with others has been taken away, it’s become impossible.

There’s a concept in psychology that I think is really useful here. And that’s this distinction between high context and low context communication. And low context communication is cut and dry communication, abbreviated, task-oriented depersonalized, it’s about problem solving, about getting things done. High context communication is the opposite. It’s very personal, it’s face to face, or at least it’s individualized. It’s drawn out, it’s nuanced, it’s sensitive. It’s about relationships, not about tasks. Relies very heavily on nonverbal elements, it’s multiple sources of information. It’s communication that’s embedded in culture, and relationships.

And all of us in a typical world rely on both of these, wherever we think they’re appropriate. And one of the ways that you’re an effective leader, or an effective person, or friend is that you understand the distinction between these two types. Think about the difference between the phrase, she broke up with me, and she broke up with me by text. Aware of the difference, same act. Aware of the difference and how you feel about what happened, because one is high context, and one is low context.

Or I lost my job today, or my boss fired me today, or I lost my job today by email. World of difference in how you feel about what happened to you, because losing your job is something that requires high context. And if you lose your job, if you’re informed on email, it’s not appropriate because that’s low context, right? To be an effective leader is to understand the distinction between those two types of communication.

So what happened when the pandemic came along? An awful lot of communication that would have been high context became low context. We haven’t had face-to-face, we haven’t had communication that’s grounded in relationships. We haven’t had people reaching out on a personal level. What we’ve had is group Zooms, what we’ve had is like all kinds of people responding in … Sorry, my cat just walked in and pushed open the door. What we’ve had is all kinds of people responding in the moment and not paying attention to the particulars and context of any relationship.

So, let’s combine these two ideas, and think about how Conde Nast handled this case of Teen Vogue. First of all, we’ve got a group of employees who are operating on a network set of assumptions, that they ought to be included in this conversation, Conde Nast did not include them in the conversation, didn’t reach out to them to have a conversation about who they were going to hire. They simply announced that this is your new boss. And secondly, that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and this was a situation with someone coming in, in an era of controversy that cried out for high context communication. And did they have high context communication around this, in the middle of this very difficult situation? No, they didn’t.

They had a controversy that played out on Twitter, on Instagram, and in press releases. The three most low context form of communication imaginable. So is it any wonder these things got out of control? So what should Teen Vogue have done? Well, first of all, they needed to reach out to every member of the staff before they announced the hiring of Alexi McCammond. And they should have said, “Let’s have a conversation about what’s happening.” They need to understand that people who belong to the network paradigm require that kind of conversation first. They need to be included in these conversations, if decisions are going to sit right with them.

And secondly, they needed to understand that, “Wait a second, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, our staff are isolated, and lonely, and off by themselves, and feeling cut off from the world at a time in their life where they require something very different.” So, that communication has got to be personal. It’s got to be individualized. We need to talk with each member of the staff, one-on-one, to explain to them what’s happening. It had to be a decision in other words that was communicating with feeling and with meaning.

My point is that how you communicate with your employees really matters, especially when your employees had an expectation that they ought to be, need to be included in conversations. And especially in the middle of a pandemic, when people are isolated and lonely. And what you say matters. You have to be able to have a conversation that reaches people, that seems real. That seems like it’s consequential, and intentional, and deliberate.

So, if they had done that, if they had communicated meaningfully, would they have had egg in their face? No, they wouldn’t. Would they have avoided this controversy? Yes, they would. Would they have had advertisers bolting? No, they wouldn’t. Now, because I’m a writer, and because what happened to Alexi McCammond really matter to me, really upset me, I’m going to read to you what I think the leadership of Conde Nast should have said to their employees. “We would like to hire Alexi McCammond as our new editor in chief, because we believe she’s a fine journalist. But in making that offer, we have taken a chance, we have gambled that she is not the same person at 27 that she was at 17. And we have gambled that when she says she’s genuinely remorseful about what she said when she was a teenager, that she is telling the truth. We would ask all of you to take the same chance on her, because there can be no genuine diversity for anyone in the workforce if we’re not willing to extend that basic human courtesy to others.

So, before you pass judgment on who she is, or what she believes, or the threats she poses to your wellbeing, meet her, talk to her, challenge her, take the measure of her, see if she is willing to convince you of her transformation. And at the same time, take the opportunity to learn something equally valuable of yourself, that you’re able to offer forgiveness to others, even when they know at some point, they have said things that were profoundly hurtful to you. We are a magazine that intends to instruct girls on how to be women. If we cannot be open to the possibility of another’s redemption, then why are we putting out this magazine every day?”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask of intelligent adults who run a multinational corporation, that they can communicate meaningfully like that to their employees. And if they were not willing to prepare for the ground with their employees in that way, if they were not willing to communicate meaningfully, if we’re not up to the challenge of running a modern workplace in a difficult time, they should never have offered that job to Alexi McCammond. That’s what made me so angry. All of us in positions of authority must do better. Thank you.

Now, back to you, Nicole, I’d be happy to answer some questions.

Nicole:

Great, thank you, Malcolm. It’s just so interesting that the last point about high context communications and low context communications, is there anything different from the written communication that employee would read, or should this be delivered at a town hall? Unfortunately, not everyone could be there. Is it in video? Do you have a point of view on the people who need to receive that communication and change the way they feel about it?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I don’t think it matters, specifically, what modality you’re using, I think it’s how you use that modality. So all the things you mentioned help, I think what matters is that the person that you’re talking to has to believe that you are talking to them as an individual, that you’re not just sending out some mass communication that is indifferent to the particulars of the situation, or they’re not even more importantly, it’s important that they not read a press release, or read a third party telling them what’s going on. It has to feel personal, that’s really what high context is.

This is high context communication that you and I are having right now, Nicole, because you asked me a question and I’m answering that question. And so both of us have an opportunity to think about and reflect on the nature of our interaction. If I was just randomly reading off questions that had been asked in advance, before people even knew what I was going to talk about, that’s not high context, that just feels like I’m filling in the Q&A portion at the end of the speech. And so I think it’s about the spirit into which the communication is entered.

Nicole:

That’s really helpful. And another piece that’s so intriguing on the network and the hierarchy, and in the context of business, you obviously can’t have full network to get things done, especially if you’re the CEO, you’re a leader, you have to deliver certain things, you have to execute on a strategy. What I heard you saying was there’s no way to be able to do that in an older framework, or to people who need that that newer network framework. So can you talk a little bit about blending those, especially in the workplace?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah. So it’s funny, I think what we’re moving towards is a hybrid model, really. It’s funny, I started a company two and a half years ago now with my best friend, and we’re up to a very small, we’re like 50 employees. And we have lots of millennials, and we have these conversations. It’s not that they’re fully in the network mode. But they still understand that we need to have leaders and managers and, a CEO, and all that stuff, but they just expect us, those of us who are in leadership, to behave differently. And they really do want to be involved in a way that … When I was 25, I had zero expectation that leaders were going to involve me in key decisions.

They these guys want to be involved. They don’t think that they should control those decisions. But their point is, I’m working here is my company. My identity is tied up in this place, involve me in this decision, keep me in the loop, listen to what I have to say, you don’t have to follow it, but at least listen. That’s what I think is a difference.

For people my age, it’s hard to make that shift, because it’s not the way things were, in the 80s when I started out my bosses were not involving me in key decisions. But that’s what the network model means. I just think is that they want the kind of day to day communication within the organization to feel different, to feel more inclusive.

Nicole:

And how do you convince leaders who maybe were brought up in that same form of leadership and have experiences where that worked well, or that’s all they knew? How do you convince them that they need to change and that high context communication has to be the core of them, driving that strategy?

Malcolm Gladwell:

It is really hard. I mean, I don’t think this [inaudible 00:34:58] otherwise. I mean, and I’m sure you’ve had more of these conversations that I have, but I have had literally dozens of conversations with people of my generation in positions of leadership, who just roll their eyes at how hard it is to work with millennials and Gen Z. I mean, they have no patience for it, they want to get rid of them all, they think they’re all nuts. That is not the appropriate response.

People of my generation need to stop saying that millennials are from Mars, they’re not from Mars, they just have a different way of thinking about how the world should be organized. And by the way, the way they think about that is in many ways totally legit. So I just think it has to start with that recognition. The kind of casual contempt that my generation I think has, we need to put a sock at.

Nicole:

Casual contempt, I like that. No, it’s interesting. When I’m speaking to CEOs, it’s the ones who want to learn from people different than them. They want to hear from millennials, they want to understand what motivates them and ultimately no surprise, those are the leaders that are most effective. How do we think about as we’re moving from hierarchy to network, or at the very least, we have to coexist when we think about the different cascades of leadership, or the effective somebodies line manager on them versus the CEO, maybe if they’re in a company of 100,000 people, is there an opportunity in this network model for new heads that can help lead many powerful movements?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah, that’s a really good point, because what happens in a network model is that power gets pushed out to the edges. That’s the whole idea that you’re … There is a real opportunity here in other words, for people, middle managers, even lower middle managers to play a much larger role in communication, there’s no longer the expectation that everything has to come from the top.

And so there’s, like I said, this is a serious opportunity for organizations to give responsibility to people who would otherwise be overlooked in this role. The thing that’s fascinating to me about networks is there isn’t the same reverence for position. It’s like when I think of the young people in our company, they don’t need, “I’m the president of the company.” They want the president to be involved in these conversations. They just need somebody to be involved in this conversation. They’re not hung up on a title the way that I would have been at that age. So that’s really liberating. I think, like I said, this is good news not bad news.

Nicole:

Yeah, I think that that’s an important point. We talk a lot about democratizing communications, and everybody who’s a leader has to be able to use that effective communication or definitely high context, especially now. We’ve got an interesting question. Do you have an example? The Teen Vogue was great and I loved the way you told the story of course, is there a company that you’ve seen handle one of those situations in the right way? So, they might not have had you to pen that eloquent letter, but have you seen anything recently that’s been the right one?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, by definition, the company that has handled it the right way we wouldn’t have heard about it. The whole point is you do it the right way, you don’t show up in the news.

Nicole:

Good point.

Malcolm Gladwell:

And everyone else who has been laughing at you or rolling their eyes at you … So, I can think of examples in our own. We had an issue in my company where it wasn’t about something that happened within our company was more about the media industry has been very kind of … There’s been a lot of controversies like this, around diversity and around these questions of personal ethics, and we had a moment when some of our younger employees were upset. And this wasn’t my idea but our CEO, my friend Jacob. We called an immediate all staff … There was this pandemic, so it was an all staff Zoom. And we just walked through it. I mean, we had a very open and honest conversation with everyone in the company, and it was emotional, and it was really important.

And the outside world never learned about it. But I think our willingness to kind of … We could have shrugged it off, we’re all super busy, it wasn’t about our company. We just decided we would deal with this. And I think that most people came out of that feeling better about who we are as a company, and our willingness to talk openly about difficult subjects. But it was very much high context. And I took the opportunity to tell the staff, we have many new staff members, and I talked about my parents, and my co founders parents, and the values that they stood for, and how we had created a company in their image.

And I remember saying this and thinking, “This has never …” When I joined the workforce, the idea that my boss would have addressed everyone in the company and talked about his parents, it’s just crazy. At the Washington Post in 1987, no one talked about their parents in terms of leadership. But now we do. By the way, it was kind of great. I mean, it was a good moment, I thought it was appropriate to tell the people in the staff where me and my co-founder came from.

Nicole:

I know, I think the those stories are so important as well, because it defines us as human. Everybody can can relate to a parent and a story and whether it’s struggle or hardship, and I think especially in a pandemic, when we’re craving those personal connections, it’s the stories that bring us together, which is so incredibly powerful.

How do you think about kind of back to the network and, and leaders owning these conversations? So, at your company, or at my company, which we do, we can all sit on Zoom and have a conversation, even a hard one to have. But if you have 10,000, or 50,000, or 100,000, or a million employees in different parts of the world, working different shifts, how do you translate these conversations across the network, and also in a way that is somehow unified? Because you have to imagine that there could be somebody at often one of the nodes, who goes off the range a bit. So how would you think about that?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast set of rules, I think the important thing is that these conversations be … I use that free phrase, they should have feeling and meaning. And I think that that’s the key that whoever is engaged in these kinds of conversations needs to stop and think first, that how can I communicate those two things. So feeling would be an emotion and meaning would be an intention and that’s what people are looking for in communication, that there is either a feeling or an intention behind it.

When we think it’s just kind of rote, we tune it out. When we think that there is that kind of consideration behind it, we embrace it. So that would be my first, and part of that is that there’s [inaudible 00:43:50] example of the advantage in using these communication modes to be unpredictable. The story I just told about this, when I shared about me and my co-founders parents to the staff, that’s an unpredictable communication. And that’s what made it powerful, is it stood out. People are like, “Oh wow, I thought we were having a business meeting.”

You should do it every time. But like mixing in that kind of thing … And it gives I think that communication mode, more kind of richness. When people understand that this is not just a way to communicate our fourth quarter numbers, or to give a new HR policy. This is a way for leadership to share something that matters to them with their colleagues in the company like that that’s I think what could make it real.

Nicole:

Yeah, and again, probably contextual. There’s a story to tell, maybe around strategy or vision that wouldn’t necessarily be the HR policy. So, one last, we’re about at time. But if you could leave everybody with one thing, I mean, I’ve learned three things to think differently, but if they’re going to go back to their organizations, whether they’re helping a CEO with their communication, whether they are a CEO, they’re a leader responsible for a group of people, what would you give them?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I would say that understanding the network model, and what people who have that paradigm want and need does not threaten your authority as a leader, it enhances it. So the instinctive thought is always, “Oh, if these people want to be part of the decision then I no longer have autonomy over my decision making.” Like, you can imagine the people of Conde Nast saying, “I want to hire Alexis McCammond, but if I open up the conversation to the whole staff then I have a situation with the staff for choosing their leader, and that’s crazy. You know that, right? And get all [inaudible 00:46:09].

But I think between us that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about ceding control or decisions to everyone else. We’re talking about a kind of consideration of employees that … What you need to know is you’re explaining your process to them, and inviting them to understand why you’re thinking the way you’re thinking. That’s not threatening, that’s actually kind of empowering for both the leader and the organization.

Nicole:

I love that. Malcolm, thank you so much for joining us. As usual, your stories were incredible, and I know that everyone now has a new perspective for the network model and what they can do personally, to help use that to really connect with and motivate their people. So thank you so much for joining us.

Malcolm Gladwell:

Thank you, Nicole.

 

Video Transcript

Malcolm Gladwell:

Hi, everyone, it’s a pleasure to meet you all. Thank you, Nicole for that very overly generous introduction. I’m sorry, we can’t all be doing this in-person, but hopefully very soon we’ll all be somewhere warm and fabulous together doing a conference the old fashioned way. So I wanted to talk about, actually pick up on some of the themes that Nicole was talking about. I want to talk about communication, and what effective communication looks like in the moment that we’re in.

And by moment I mean, both the pandemic moment, but also the broader moment. The moment when millennials, and Gen Z, and the digital generation is starting to make a real impact on the workforce. And I think that’s a really relevant topic, because we’re all here, obviously, to talk about a communications tool. And the logical question from that is, how should we use that tool? And particularly, how should we use that tool now?

So, what I thought I would do is tell a story, a case study taken from the news, something that happened very recently, and walk through how I think the company involved made a mistake and what we can learn from them. And it’s a story that involves a woman named Alexi McCammond. Some of you may have read about this, it just happened a few months ago. She’s 27 years old, African American. She was born in Rockford, Illinois, went to a pretty tough High School in majority, economically disadvantaged high school in Rockford. She’s a grad, gets a scholarship to the University of Chicago, first generation in her family to go to college, and starts writing there for a series of publications. Graduates, enters journalism, and she’s a star. She very rapidly rises and by her mid-20s, she’s covering Biden in the last national election campaign. She’s named to Forbes as 30 under 30, and she is offered a job at the beginning of this year to be the new editor of Teen Vogue magazine.

So, Teen Vogue is owned by Conde Nast, that’s the pinnacle of American journalism. But then it all falls apart. Within days of being named to this position, a series of tweets are on earth that she had written when she was 17 years old. She had gotten a bad grade on a math test, and so she wrote a series of angry social media posts about her TA, in which she used derogatory language about her Asian TA.

Conde Nast had known about these tweets, Alexi McCammond had apologized for them, she had deleted them, she had expressed remorse about them. And for the executives of Conde Nast who hired her, that apology was sufficient. But it wasn’t sufficient for the employees of Teen Vogue, and it also was insufficient for some of the advertisers. So when her hiring was announced, 20 of the employees of Teen Vogue took to Twitter, and they posted a statement, basically saying how upset they were about this hiring. McCammond did apologize again, and I’m going to read you her apology on Twitter.

“You’ve seen some offensive idiotic tweets from when I was a teenager that perpetuated harmful and racist stereotypes about Asian Americans. I apologized for them years ago, but I want to be clear today. I apologize deeply to all of you, the pain this has caused. There’s no excuse for language like that.” So once again she apologizes, but it isn’t enough. Social media takes over it, the story kind of grows in leaps and bounds, two advertisers at Teen Vogue threatened to pull their campaigns and McCammond is forced to resign.

Now, I should say that I was one of those people who took to social media to chime in on this controversy. I was and I remain very upset that McCammond was forced to resign. I don’t think anyone should ever lose a job as an adult for something they said as a teenager. I think we should allow people to mature, and grow, and make mistakes. And I think that as human beings, we are obliged to offer forgiveness to people who have committed transgressions and complain about them.

So, I was angry and I remain angry about this particular case, but my anger is not the crucial thing here. What I’m going to talk about instead was the way that Conde Nast handled this controversy, because I can think we can all agree that they screwed up big time. They wanted to hire a promising young, diverse candidate for a prominent job. They knew she had posted these stupid tweets as a teenager, they knew she had apologized for them. And they accepted her apology. They wanted to give her a second chance, and the whole thing blew up in her face. Their advertisers threatened to both, their staff was incredibly unhappy. And they were left in this incredibly embarrassing position.

I mean, think about it, they run a magazine called Teen Vogue, which is supposed to instruct girls about how to become women. It’s supposed to instruct people who are in the middle of the most complicated and confusing time of their life about how to mature and be adults. And here they have an example of a young woman who went through something complicated and confusing when she was a teenager. This is a woman who is a case study of the reason why their magazine exists. And what did they do when confronted with this complicated and confusing situation? They threw up their hands and said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you can’t work anymore.”

I mean, that is not A+ leadership. So my question is, what can we learn from the mistakes that Conde Nast made in this case? What does this incident teach us about how to communicate with your staff? So, I want to focus on two ideas that I think help us understand this case. One has to do with the consequences of this generational shift in the workplace. And the other has to do with this particular moment, this kind of pandemic moment that we’re in. And then I want to offer a suggestion for how I think Conde Nast should have handled this particular controversy.

I’ll start with the generational argument, and I’m going to warn you that I’m going to go off on a tangent. But the tangent, I promise you, I will come back to the case at hand. I like to go on long tangents, as any of you who have read any of my writing know. So, let’s talk about the generational issue that I think is at the core of this. Like many of you, at least some of you on this call, I’m a baby boomer. I was born in the last year of the baby boom. And if you want to ask me, what was the most iconic social movement of my generation? I would say, “Oh, it’s Martin Luther King, and in particular, is probably Martin Luther King’s famous Birmingham campaign of 1963.”

So, Birmingham was in the South in the 60s, probably the most racially divided city, and the police chief there was a truly horrible human being named Bull Connor. And King moves into Birmingham in 1963 and decided to take on Bull Connor, and try and bring segregation to an end in the most divided city in the South. And he sits down with all of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, all of the pastors of the black churches, and he plots out a very, very precise plan of action called Project C, for Project Confrontation. And his intention is to try and bait Bull Connor into an overreaction.

And what he does is he plans a series of marches, but first of all, he trains all of the members of his movement in the politics of nonviolent protest that he has taken from Mahatma Gandhi. Because remember, King went to India and studied with Gandhi about how to carry out these kinds of protests. And he also has a colleague called James Bevel, who goes into the schools of Birmingham and also trains the kids of Birmingham in how to conduct themselves in nonviolent protest.

And he sends out wave after wave of protesters into the marches, in the streets of Birmingham. And Bull Connor, just arrest them all, and then King would send out another wave and Bull Connor would arrest them. And finally, Bull Connor runs out of space in the jails of Birmingham. So King keeps sending waves of marches, and now Bull Connor has to respond in some other way than just simply arresting them. And Connor brings out the dogs, and he brings out the firemen with their water hoses because he intends to try and disperse the marchers that way.

And King at this point deploys to kids, he brings the kids out. And Connor, of course, if you know your history you know, he seeks the dog on the children. The dogs on the children, and King has invited every journalist in North America to take note of this moment when the racist chief of police in Birmingham is seeking German Shepherds on 11 and 12 year old kids, and they’re there with the television cameras, and the photographers are there for all the newspapers. And those pictures run on the front of every newspaper around the world.

And the moment King realizes that he has baited Bull Connor into this overreaction, he knows that he’s won. He knows and sure enough, a year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes. And people always said of that groundbreaking piece of legislation that the Civil Rights Act of 64 was written in the streets of Birmingham, that that’s what King was able to accomplish with what he did in that city.

So, those of you who are like me, baby boomers, when we say that that’s the iconic social movement of our time, what do we mean? Well, we mean that a social movement looks like a military campaign. It has a leader, it has a clear strategy, and it has an ideology. And if you look at all of the revolutionary movements of my generation, Castro in Cuba, [Juche 00:11:21], in North Korea, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, they all look like that. They have this clear leader, they have a strategy that’s being followed, and they have an ideology that guides them, that is a part of their movement.

Now, if you are a member of Gen Z, the digital age, if you’re a millennial, and I ask that same question, what is the iconic social movement of your generation? What would the answer be? Well, the answer would probably be the Black Lives protests of last summer. The protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. An extraordinary set of marches and protests across the United States, probably the most sustained moment of civic unrest since 1968 in this country.

Now, let’s compare last summer to Birmingham. Did the George Floyd protests have a leader like Martin Luther King? No, they did not. There were people who were behind Black Lives Matter, but they were not front and center. They weren’t household names, they weren’t directing everything with the same kind of precision that Martin Luther King did. Was it the case that Black Lives Matter had an ideology like King had an ideology? No. In fact, one of the things that was striking and in some ways so moving about Black Lives Matter last summer, was their most an unifying ideology.

You had in some cities, police officers marched in the Black Lives Matter protests alongside progressives who had radically different ideas about how the police are to function in society. This ideologically coherent movement the way it was in 63 when King had a clear agenda that he wanted to bring about. This was a people from every walk of life who were joining in the moment to protest what happened to George Floyd.

Did the protests last summer have a strategy? In Birmingham in 63, you did not take a step without the approval of Martin Luther King. Was that the case last summer? No, it wasn’t. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous. King spent a year planning what happened in Birmingham. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous, they were planned overnight. They were plotted out in the moment on Twitter, and Facebook, and other social media. What passes for a protest in my generation, and what passes for a protest to today’s generation could not be more different.

Now, what’s the difference? Well, my generation took it for granted that the optimal mode of organization was the hierarchy. My grandfather served in the military, and so did my great grandfather, they were born of a system that said that when you tried to do something in the world, you use the hierarchy. And what is the hierarchy? A hierarchy has three components. A hierarchy is something that is closed, that there was this clear line that separates those who are part of the movement and those who aren’t. A hierarchy is disciplined, there’s a set of rules about how you operate, and if you are at the bottom of the hierarchy, you follow the rules.

And thirdly, a hierarchy is centralized. Authority is held by a small group of people at the center of the organization. And we took it for granted that when you did anything, that’s what you used, closed, disciplined, centralized. Now, here’s where we differ from the current generation. The current generation does not take it for granted that the hierarchy is the default mode of organization. They take it for granted that the network is the default mode of social organization. And what is the network? Well, look at all of the social protests that have happened in recent years, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter.

What are they? They’re all networks, they all look the same. And what is a network? A network is open, not closed. Anyone can join. It’s flexible, not disciplined. These are networks that respond in the moment that change, and morph, and evolve according to the challenges they face. And they are decentralized, not centralized. They only have one general in charge like Martin Luther King, power was held loosely by all kinds of people at the fringes of the movement.

Every now and again, I have these old fogy conversations with people who are like myself, of an older generation, and we say, “The millennials, they feel like a different species. I can’t understand them. I don’t know where they’re coming from.” They’re not a different species, and we can understand where they come from. They simply operate by a different set of assumptions about how the world ought to be organized, they’re network people, not hierarchy people.

I used to work for a magazine at Conde Nast, The New Yorker magazine, which right now, like many media organizations is in the middle of a very bitter union dispute. The junior staff is organized and is really on the verge of a strike, the first strike in the history of the New Yorker magazine. And what’s fascinating, if you know something about the labor unrest at the New Yorker right now is that it does not resemble a traditional labor dispute. This is not about workers versus management. This is about millennials versus boomers.

In every way, this is a conflict that proceeds along generational lines. The New Yorker was organized 75 years ago as a classic hierarchy, as a small group of very powerful editors who were in charge of the magazine. And there was a very strict set of rules that govern how the New Yorker operates. And for 75 years, that’s been fine. But now there is a cohort of younger people at that magazine, and that’s not the way they organize their world. They think of the magazine as a network, and they say, “Well, if it’s a network, then power should be decentralized. If this is a network, then why are we expected to work our way up from the bottom, slowly and painfully over many years? Why are we expected to make nothing when we start? We’re all in this together, shouldn’t we all be equal partners in the fortunes of this magazine?” That’s the tension I’m talking about between hierarchy and network.

Now, is the hierarchy better than the network? Sometimes people my age want to argue, that our way is better. I don’t think that’s a relevant consideration. I think networks are good at some things, they’re incredibly resilient, they’re incredibly adaptable, they’re easy to form, and they are bad at other things. There are some things that hierarchies are better at doing. Hierarchies are really good at carrying out a very complex task, on the other hand, hierarchies, you got to have a good leader. If you don’t have Martin Luther King, you’re sunk. If you don’t have Nelson Mandela, there’s no way you can overturn apartheid, you need that kind of high quality leader.

Networks and hierarchies are just different. I think the more relevant question is, which of those two models, of those two paradigms is winning right now? And to my mind, the answer is obvious, the network’s winning. The model that the millennials and Gen Z has, their default model is the one that’s taking over the workplace. And if you’re someone who is in a position of leadership in the workplace, you have to understand that, that the rules are rapidly changing, and that the hierarchy is very soon going to be a thing of the past.

So, let’s get back to the story I started with, Conde Nast and Teen Vogue. What does this mean? Well, what it means is that if you’re Conde Nast, you cannot hire editors the way you’ve been hiring them for 75 years. The conventional way of bringing in new leadership at magazines, at Conde Nast was the bosses up on the top floor decided who they were going to hire, and announced that hire to the staff. It was like, “This is your new leader.” And that was that, you never say if you’re staff, you just accepted who the new boss was.

But now in the network world, and that’s not how employees think. Their expectation is, “Wait a minute, we’re all in this together. You’re going to bring in a new leader, shouldn’t we be part of the conversation about who that new leader is? Shouldn’t we be involved in this most crucial of decisions about our publication?” I said that the 20 members of Teen Vogue published a tweet explaining their position. And let me just read on the McCammond hiring, let me just read to you what the tweet said.

In a moment, historically anti Asian violence, and amid the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community, we as the staff of Teen Vogue fully reject these sentiments. We are … This is the crucial sentence. We are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful in maintaining the integrity granted to us by our audience. Listen to that second sentence, we are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful. They’re not saying, “We hate this hire, we hate this woman.” They’re saying, “We’re in this together, can’t we talk about it first as a community? Can’t we have a conversation?”

And if you realize where they’re coming from, that they have the network in mind, you realize that’s a totally legitimate request from where they’re standing. Okay. Second point, when does this whole controversy happen? It happens in the middle of a pandemic. And I think it’s pretty clear that if there hadn’t been a pandemic, I really doubt that this incident would have blown up the way it has, for a couple of reasons. One is obviously that we’re all on edge, and in this moment, lots of things are blowing up that wouldn’t ordinarily blow up. But also I think that we’re talking about a staff here that is in their 20s, it’s Teen Vogue.

And I think it’s really clear that the burden of this pandemic has fallen disproportionately on the young, that it’s not 57-year-olds like me who have really struggled over the last year. No, it’s people in their teens and in their 20s. People for whom they’re at a stage in their life when sociability and interaction is at the key of what it means to be alive, what it means to find your identity, what it means to learn about the world. And for the last year, that ability to be social and to interact with others has been taken away, it’s become impossible.

There’s a concept in psychology that I think is really useful here. And that’s this distinction between high context and low context communication. And low context communication is cut and dry communication, abbreviated, task-oriented depersonalized, it’s about problem solving, about getting things done. High context communication is the opposite. It’s very personal, it’s face to face, or at least it’s individualized. It’s drawn out, it’s nuanced, it’s sensitive. It’s about relationships, not about tasks. Relies very heavily on nonverbal elements, it’s multiple sources of information. It’s communication that’s embedded in culture, and relationships.

And all of us in a typical world rely on both of these, wherever we think they’re appropriate. And one of the ways that you’re an effective leader, or an effective person, or friend is that you understand the distinction between these two types. Think about the difference between the phrase, she broke up with me, and she broke up with me by text. Aware of the difference, same act. Aware of the difference and how you feel about what happened, because one is high context, and one is low context.

Or I lost my job today, or my boss fired me today, or I lost my job today by email. World of difference in how you feel about what happened to you, because losing your job is something that requires high context. And if you lose your job, if you’re informed on email, it’s not appropriate because that’s low context, right? To be an effective leader is to understand the distinction between those two types of communication.

So what happened when the pandemic came along? An awful lot of communication that would have been high context became low context. We haven’t had face-to-face, we haven’t had communication that’s grounded in relationships. We haven’t had people reaching out on a personal level. What we’ve had is group Zooms, what we’ve had is like all kinds of people responding in … Sorry, my cat just walked in and pushed open the door. What we’ve had is all kinds of people responding in the moment and not paying attention to the particulars and context of any relationship.

So, let’s combine these two ideas, and think about how Conde Nast handled this case of Teen Vogue. First of all, we’ve got a group of employees who are operating on a network set of assumptions, that they ought to be included in this conversation, Conde Nast did not include them in the conversation, didn’t reach out to them to have a conversation about who they were going to hire. They simply announced that this is your new boss. And secondly, that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and this was a situation with someone coming in, in an era of controversy that cried out for high context communication. And did they have high context communication around this, in the middle of this very difficult situation? No, they didn’t.

They had a controversy that played out on Twitter, on Instagram, and in press releases. The three most low context form of communication imaginable. So is it any wonder these things got out of control? So what should Teen Vogue have done? Well, first of all, they needed to reach out to every member of the staff before they announced the hiring of Alexi McCammond. And they should have said, “Let’s have a conversation about what’s happening.” They need to understand that people who belong to the network paradigm require that kind of conversation first. They need to be included in these conversations, if decisions are going to sit right with them.

And secondly, they needed to understand that, “Wait a second, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, our staff are isolated, and lonely, and off by themselves, and feeling cut off from the world at a time in their life where they require something very different.” So, that communication has got to be personal. It’s got to be individualized. We need to talk with each member of the staff, one-on-one, to explain to them what’s happening. It had to be a decision in other words that was communicating with feeling and with meaning.

My point is that how you communicate with your employees really matters, especially when your employees had an expectation that they ought to be, need to be included in conversations. And especially in the middle of a pandemic, when people are isolated and lonely. And what you say matters. You have to be able to have a conversation that reaches people, that seems real. That seems like it’s consequential, and intentional, and deliberate.

So, if they had done that, if they had communicated meaningfully, would they have had egg in their face? No, they wouldn’t. Would they have avoided this controversy? Yes, they would. Would they have had advertisers bolting? No, they wouldn’t. Now, because I’m a writer, and because what happened to Alexi McCammond really matter to me, really upset me, I’m going to read to you what I think the leadership of Conde Nast should have said to their employees. “We would like to hire Alexi McCammond as our new editor in chief, because we believe she’s a fine journalist. But in making that offer, we have taken a chance, we have gambled that she is not the same person at 27 that she was at 17. And we have gambled that when she says she’s genuinely remorseful about what she said when she was a teenager, that she is telling the truth. We would ask all of you to take the same chance on her, because there can be no genuine diversity for anyone in the workforce if we’re not willing to extend that basic human courtesy to others.

So, before you pass judgment on who she is, or what she believes, or the threats she poses to your wellbeing, meet her, talk to her, challenge her, take the measure of her, see if she is willing to convince you of her transformation. And at the same time, take the opportunity to learn something equally valuable of yourself, that you’re able to offer forgiveness to others, even when they know at some point, they have said things that were profoundly hurtful to you. We are a magazine that intends to instruct girls on how to be women. If we cannot be open to the possibility of another’s redemption, then why are we putting out this magazine every day?”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask of intelligent adults who run a multinational corporation, that they can communicate meaningfully like that to their employees. And if they were not willing to prepare for the ground with their employees in that way, if they were not willing to communicate meaningfully, if we’re not up to the challenge of running a modern workplace in a difficult time, they should never have offered that job to Alexi McCammond. That’s what made me so angry. All of us in positions of authority must do better. Thank you.

Now, back to you, Nicole, I’d be happy to answer some questions.

Nicole:

Great, thank you, Malcolm. It’s just so interesting that the last point about high context communications and low context communications, is there anything different from the written communication that employee would read, or should this be delivered at a town hall? Unfortunately, not everyone could be there. Is it in video? Do you have a point of view on the people who need to receive that communication and change the way they feel about it?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I don’t think it matters, specifically, what modality you’re using, I think it’s how you use that modality. So all the things you mentioned help, I think what matters is that the person that you’re talking to has to believe that you are talking to them as an individual, that you’re not just sending out some mass communication that is indifferent to the particulars of the situation, or they’re not even more importantly, it’s important that they not read a press release, or read a third party telling them what’s going on. It has to feel personal, that’s really what high context is.

This is high context communication that you and I are having right now, Nicole, because you asked me a question and I’m answering that question. And so both of us have an opportunity to think about and reflect on the nature of our interaction. If I was just randomly reading off questions that had been asked in advance, before people even knew what I was going to talk about, that’s not high context, that just feels like I’m filling in the Q&A portion at the end of the speech. And so I think it’s about the spirit into which the communication is entered.

Nicole:

That’s really helpful. And another piece that’s so intriguing on the network and the hierarchy, and in the context of business, you obviously can’t have full network to get things done, especially if you’re the CEO, you’re a leader, you have to deliver certain things, you have to execute on a strategy. What I heard you saying was there’s no way to be able to do that in an older framework, or to people who need that that newer network framework. So can you talk a little bit about blending those, especially in the workplace?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah. So it’s funny, I think what we’re moving towards is a hybrid model, really. It’s funny, I started a company two and a half years ago now with my best friend, and we’re up to a very small, we’re like 50 employees. And we have lots of millennials, and we have these conversations. It’s not that they’re fully in the network mode. But they still understand that we need to have leaders and managers and, a CEO, and all that stuff, but they just expect us, those of us who are in leadership, to behave differently. And they really do want to be involved in a way that … When I was 25, I had zero expectation that leaders were going to involve me in key decisions.

They these guys want to be involved. They don’t think that they should control those decisions. But their point is, I’m working here is my company. My identity is tied up in this place, involve me in this decision, keep me in the loop, listen to what I have to say, you don’t have to follow it, but at least listen. That’s what I think is a difference.

For people my age, it’s hard to make that shift, because it’s not the way things were, in the 80s when I started out my bosses were not involving me in key decisions. But that’s what the network model means. I just think is that they want the kind of day to day communication within the organization to feel different, to feel more inclusive.

Nicole:

And how do you convince leaders who maybe were brought up in that same form of leadership and have experiences where that worked well, or that’s all they knew? How do you convince them that they need to change and that high context communication has to be the core of them, driving that strategy?

Malcolm Gladwell:

It is really hard. I mean, I don’t think this [inaudible 00:34:58] otherwise. I mean, and I’m sure you’ve had more of these conversations that I have, but I have had literally dozens of conversations with people of my generation in positions of leadership, who just roll their eyes at how hard it is to work with millennials and Gen Z. I mean, they have no patience for it, they want to get rid of them all, they think they’re all nuts. That is not the appropriate response.

People of my generation need to stop saying that millennials are from Mars, they’re not from Mars, they just have a different way of thinking about how the world should be organized. And by the way, the way they think about that is in many ways totally legit. So I just think it has to start with that recognition. The kind of casual contempt that my generation I think has, we need to put a sock at.

Nicole:

Casual contempt, I like that. No, it’s interesting. When I’m speaking to CEOs, it’s the ones who want to learn from people different than them. They want to hear from millennials, they want to understand what motivates them and ultimately no surprise, those are the leaders that are most effective. How do we think about as we’re moving from hierarchy to network, or at the very least, we have to coexist when we think about the different cascades of leadership, or the effective somebodies line manager on them versus the CEO, maybe if they’re in a company of 100,000 people, is there an opportunity in this network model for new heads that can help lead many powerful movements?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah, that’s a really good point, because what happens in a network model is that power gets pushed out to the edges. That’s the whole idea that you’re … There is a real opportunity here in other words, for people, middle managers, even lower middle managers to play a much larger role in communication, there’s no longer the expectation that everything has to come from the top.

And so there’s, like I said, this is a serious opportunity for organizations to give responsibility to people who would otherwise be overlooked in this role. The thing that’s fascinating to me about networks is there isn’t the same reverence for position. It’s like when I think of the young people in our company, they don’t need, “I’m the president of the company.” They want the president to be involved in these conversations. They just need somebody to be involved in this conversation. They’re not hung up on a title the way that I would have been at that age. So that’s really liberating. I think, like I said, this is good news not bad news.

Nicole:

Yeah, I think that that’s an important point. We talk a lot about democratizing communications, and everybody who’s a leader has to be able to use that effective communication or definitely high context, especially now. We’ve got an interesting question. Do you have an example? The Teen Vogue was great and I loved the way you told the story of course, is there a company that you’ve seen handle one of those situations in the right way? So, they might not have had you to pen that eloquent letter, but have you seen anything recently that’s been the right one?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, by definition, the company that has handled it the right way we wouldn’t have heard about it. The whole point is you do it the right way, you don’t show up in the news.

Nicole:

Good point.

Malcolm Gladwell:

And everyone else who has been laughing at you or rolling their eyes at you … So, I can think of examples in our own. We had an issue in my company where it wasn’t about something that happened within our company was more about the media industry has been very kind of … There’s been a lot of controversies like this, around diversity and around these questions of personal ethics, and we had a moment when some of our younger employees were upset. And this wasn’t my idea but our CEO, my friend Jacob. We called an immediate all staff … There was this pandemic, so it was an all staff Zoom. And we just walked through it. I mean, we had a very open and honest conversation with everyone in the company, and it was emotional, and it was really important.

And the outside world never learned about it. But I think our willingness to kind of … We could have shrugged it off, we’re all super busy, it wasn’t about our company. We just decided we would deal with this. And I think that most people came out of that feeling better about who we are as a company, and our willingness to talk openly about difficult subjects. But it was very much high context. And I took the opportunity to tell the staff, we have many new staff members, and I talked about my parents, and my co founders parents, and the values that they stood for, and how we had created a company in their image.

And I remember saying this and thinking, “This has never …” When I joined the workforce, the idea that my boss would have addressed everyone in the company and talked about his parents, it’s just crazy. At the Washington Post in 1987, no one talked about their parents in terms of leadership. But now we do. By the way, it was kind of great. I mean, it was a good moment, I thought it was appropriate to tell the people in the staff where me and my co-founder came from.

Nicole:

I know, I think the those stories are so important as well, because it defines us as human. Everybody can can relate to a parent and a story and whether it’s struggle or hardship, and I think especially in a pandemic, when we’re craving those personal connections, it’s the stories that bring us together, which is so incredibly powerful.

How do you think about kind of back to the network and, and leaders owning these conversations? So, at your company, or at my company, which we do, we can all sit on Zoom and have a conversation, even a hard one to have. But if you have 10,000, or 50,000, or 100,000, or a million employees in different parts of the world, working different shifts, how do you translate these conversations across the network, and also in a way that is somehow unified? Because you have to imagine that there could be somebody at often one of the nodes, who goes off the range a bit. So how would you think about that?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast set of rules, I think the important thing is that these conversations be … I use that free phrase, they should have feeling and meaning. And I think that that’s the key that whoever is engaged in these kinds of conversations needs to stop and think first, that how can I communicate those two things. So feeling would be an emotion and meaning would be an intention and that’s what people are looking for in communication, that there is either a feeling or an intention behind it.

When we think it’s just kind of rote, we tune it out. When we think that there is that kind of consideration behind it, we embrace it. So that would be my first, and part of that is that there’s [inaudible 00:43:50] example of the advantage in using these communication modes to be unpredictable. The story I just told about this, when I shared about me and my co-founders parents to the staff, that’s an unpredictable communication. And that’s what made it powerful, is it stood out. People are like, “Oh wow, I thought we were having a business meeting.”

You should do it every time. But like mixing in that kind of thing … And it gives I think that communication mode, more kind of richness. When people understand that this is not just a way to communicate our fourth quarter numbers, or to give a new HR policy. This is a way for leadership to share something that matters to them with their colleagues in the company like that that’s I think what could make it real.

Nicole:

Yeah, and again, probably contextual. There’s a story to tell, maybe around strategy or vision that wouldn’t necessarily be the HR policy. So, one last, we’re about at time. But if you could leave everybody with one thing, I mean, I’ve learned three things to think differently, but if they’re going to go back to their organizations, whether they’re helping a CEO with their communication, whether they are a CEO, they’re a leader responsible for a group of people, what would you give them?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I would say that understanding the network model, and what people who have that paradigm want and need does not threaten your authority as a leader, it enhances it. So the instinctive thought is always, “Oh, if these people want to be part of the decision then I no longer have autonomy over my decision making.” Like, you can imagine the people of Conde Nast saying, “I want to hire Alexis McCammond, but if I open up the conversation to the whole staff then I have a situation with the staff for choosing their leader, and that’s crazy. You know that, right? And get all [inaudible 00:46:09].

But I think between us that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about ceding control or decisions to everyone else. We’re talking about a kind of consideration of employees that … What you need to know is you’re explaining your process to them, and inviting them to understand why you’re thinking the way you’re thinking. That’s not threatening, that’s actually kind of empowering for both the leader and the organization.

Nicole:

I love that. Malcolm, thank you so much for joining us. As usual, your stories were incredible, and I know that everyone now has a new perspective for the network model and what they can do personally, to help use that to really connect with and motivate their people. So thank you so much for joining us.

Malcolm Gladwell:

Thank you, Nicole.

 

Expand Transcript

Video Transcript

Malcolm Gladwell:

Hi, everyone, it’s a pleasure to meet you all. Thank you, Nicole for that very overly generous introduction. I’m sorry, we can’t all be doing this in-person, but hopefully very soon we’ll all be somewhere warm and fabulous together doing a conference the old fashioned way. So I wanted to talk about, actually pick up on some of the themes that Nicole was talking about. I want to talk about communication, and what effective communication looks like in the moment that we’re in.

And by moment I mean, both the pandemic moment, but also the broader moment. The moment when millennials, and Gen Z, and the digital generation is starting to make a real impact on the workforce. And I think that’s a really relevant topic, because we’re all here, obviously, to talk about a communications tool. And the logical question from that is, how should we use that tool? And particularly, how should we use that tool now?

So, what I thought I would do is tell a story, a case study taken from the news, something that happened very recently, and walk through how I think the company involved made a mistake and what we can learn from them. And it’s a story that involves a woman named Alexi McCammond. Some of you may have read about this, it just happened a few months ago. She’s 27 years old, African American. She was born in Rockford, Illinois, went to a pretty tough High School in majority, economically disadvantaged high school in Rockford. She’s a grad, gets a scholarship to the University of Chicago, first generation in her family to go to college, and starts writing there for a series of publications. Graduates, enters journalism, and she’s a star. She very rapidly rises and by her mid-20s, she’s covering Biden in the last national election campaign. She’s named to Forbes as 30 under 30, and she is offered a job at the beginning of this year to be the new editor of Teen Vogue magazine.

So, Teen Vogue is owned by Conde Nast, that’s the pinnacle of American journalism. But then it all falls apart. Within days of being named to this position, a series of tweets are on earth that she had written when she was 17 years old. She had gotten a bad grade on a math test, and so she wrote a series of angry social media posts about her TA, in which she used derogatory language about her Asian TA.

Conde Nast had known about these tweets, Alexi McCammond had apologized for them, she had deleted them, she had expressed remorse about them. And for the executives of Conde Nast who hired her, that apology was sufficient. But it wasn’t sufficient for the employees of Teen Vogue, and it also was insufficient for some of the advertisers. So when her hiring was announced, 20 of the employees of Teen Vogue took to Twitter, and they posted a statement, basically saying how upset they were about this hiring. McCammond did apologize again, and I’m going to read you her apology on Twitter.

“You’ve seen some offensive idiotic tweets from when I was a teenager that perpetuated harmful and racist stereotypes about Asian Americans. I apologized for them years ago, but I want to be clear today. I apologize deeply to all of you, the pain this has caused. There’s no excuse for language like that.” So once again she apologizes, but it isn’t enough. Social media takes over it, the story kind of grows in leaps and bounds, two advertisers at Teen Vogue threatened to pull their campaigns and McCammond is forced to resign.

Now, I should say that I was one of those people who took to social media to chime in on this controversy. I was and I remain very upset that McCammond was forced to resign. I don’t think anyone should ever lose a job as an adult for something they said as a teenager. I think we should allow people to mature, and grow, and make mistakes. And I think that as human beings, we are obliged to offer forgiveness to people who have committed transgressions and complain about them.

So, I was angry and I remain angry about this particular case, but my anger is not the crucial thing here. What I’m going to talk about instead was the way that Conde Nast handled this controversy, because I can think we can all agree that they screwed up big time. They wanted to hire a promising young, diverse candidate for a prominent job. They knew she had posted these stupid tweets as a teenager, they knew she had apologized for them. And they accepted her apology. They wanted to give her a second chance, and the whole thing blew up in her face. Their advertisers threatened to both, their staff was incredibly unhappy. And they were left in this incredibly embarrassing position.

I mean, think about it, they run a magazine called Teen Vogue, which is supposed to instruct girls about how to become women. It’s supposed to instruct people who are in the middle of the most complicated and confusing time of their life about how to mature and be adults. And here they have an example of a young woman who went through something complicated and confusing when she was a teenager. This is a woman who is a case study of the reason why their magazine exists. And what did they do when confronted with this complicated and confusing situation? They threw up their hands and said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you can’t work anymore.”

I mean, that is not A+ leadership. So my question is, what can we learn from the mistakes that Conde Nast made in this case? What does this incident teach us about how to communicate with your staff? So, I want to focus on two ideas that I think help us understand this case. One has to do with the consequences of this generational shift in the workplace. And the other has to do with this particular moment, this kind of pandemic moment that we’re in. And then I want to offer a suggestion for how I think Conde Nast should have handled this particular controversy.

I’ll start with the generational argument, and I’m going to warn you that I’m going to go off on a tangent. But the tangent, I promise you, I will come back to the case at hand. I like to go on long tangents, as any of you who have read any of my writing know. So, let’s talk about the generational issue that I think is at the core of this. Like many of you, at least some of you on this call, I’m a baby boomer. I was born in the last year of the baby boom. And if you want to ask me, what was the most iconic social movement of my generation? I would say, “Oh, it’s Martin Luther King, and in particular, is probably Martin Luther King’s famous Birmingham campaign of 1963.”

So, Birmingham was in the South in the 60s, probably the most racially divided city, and the police chief there was a truly horrible human being named Bull Connor. And King moves into Birmingham in 1963 and decided to take on Bull Connor, and try and bring segregation to an end in the most divided city in the South. And he sits down with all of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, all of the pastors of the black churches, and he plots out a very, very precise plan of action called Project C, for Project Confrontation. And his intention is to try and bait Bull Connor into an overreaction.

And what he does is he plans a series of marches, but first of all, he trains all of the members of his movement in the politics of nonviolent protest that he has taken from Mahatma Gandhi. Because remember, King went to India and studied with Gandhi about how to carry out these kinds of protests. And he also has a colleague called James Bevel, who goes into the schools of Birmingham and also trains the kids of Birmingham in how to conduct themselves in nonviolent protest.

And he sends out wave after wave of protesters into the marches, in the streets of Birmingham. And Bull Connor, just arrest them all, and then King would send out another wave and Bull Connor would arrest them. And finally, Bull Connor runs out of space in the jails of Birmingham. So King keeps sending waves of marches, and now Bull Connor has to respond in some other way than just simply arresting them. And Connor brings out the dogs, and he brings out the firemen with their water hoses because he intends to try and disperse the marchers that way.

And King at this point deploys to kids, he brings the kids out. And Connor, of course, if you know your history you know, he seeks the dog on the children. The dogs on the children, and King has invited every journalist in North America to take note of this moment when the racist chief of police in Birmingham is seeking German Shepherds on 11 and 12 year old kids, and they’re there with the television cameras, and the photographers are there for all the newspapers. And those pictures run on the front of every newspaper around the world.

And the moment King realizes that he has baited Bull Connor into this overreaction, he knows that he’s won. He knows and sure enough, a year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes. And people always said of that groundbreaking piece of legislation that the Civil Rights Act of 64 was written in the streets of Birmingham, that that’s what King was able to accomplish with what he did in that city.

So, those of you who are like me, baby boomers, when we say that that’s the iconic social movement of our time, what do we mean? Well, we mean that a social movement looks like a military campaign. It has a leader, it has a clear strategy, and it has an ideology. And if you look at all of the revolutionary movements of my generation, Castro in Cuba, [Juche 00:11:21], in North Korea, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, they all look like that. They have this clear leader, they have a strategy that’s being followed, and they have an ideology that guides them, that is a part of their movement.

Now, if you are a member of Gen Z, the digital age, if you’re a millennial, and I ask that same question, what is the iconic social movement of your generation? What would the answer be? Well, the answer would probably be the Black Lives protests of last summer. The protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. An extraordinary set of marches and protests across the United States, probably the most sustained moment of civic unrest since 1968 in this country.

Now, let’s compare last summer to Birmingham. Did the George Floyd protests have a leader like Martin Luther King? No, they did not. There were people who were behind Black Lives Matter, but they were not front and center. They weren’t household names, they weren’t directing everything with the same kind of precision that Martin Luther King did. Was it the case that Black Lives Matter had an ideology like King had an ideology? No. In fact, one of the things that was striking and in some ways so moving about Black Lives Matter last summer, was their most an unifying ideology.

You had in some cities, police officers marched in the Black Lives Matter protests alongside progressives who had radically different ideas about how the police are to function in society. This ideologically coherent movement the way it was in 63 when King had a clear agenda that he wanted to bring about. This was a people from every walk of life who were joining in the moment to protest what happened to George Floyd.

Did the protests last summer have a strategy? In Birmingham in 63, you did not take a step without the approval of Martin Luther King. Was that the case last summer? No, it wasn’t. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous. King spent a year planning what happened in Birmingham. Last summer, the protests were spontaneous, they were planned overnight. They were plotted out in the moment on Twitter, and Facebook, and other social media. What passes for a protest in my generation, and what passes for a protest to today’s generation could not be more different.

Now, what’s the difference? Well, my generation took it for granted that the optimal mode of organization was the hierarchy. My grandfather served in the military, and so did my great grandfather, they were born of a system that said that when you tried to do something in the world, you use the hierarchy. And what is the hierarchy? A hierarchy has three components. A hierarchy is something that is closed, that there was this clear line that separates those who are part of the movement and those who aren’t. A hierarchy is disciplined, there’s a set of rules about how you operate, and if you are at the bottom of the hierarchy, you follow the rules.

And thirdly, a hierarchy is centralized. Authority is held by a small group of people at the center of the organization. And we took it for granted that when you did anything, that’s what you used, closed, disciplined, centralized. Now, here’s where we differ from the current generation. The current generation does not take it for granted that the hierarchy is the default mode of organization. They take it for granted that the network is the default mode of social organization. And what is the network? Well, look at all of the social protests that have happened in recent years, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter.

What are they? They’re all networks, they all look the same. And what is a network? A network is open, not closed. Anyone can join. It’s flexible, not disciplined. These are networks that respond in the moment that change, and morph, and evolve according to the challenges they face. And they are decentralized, not centralized. They only have one general in charge like Martin Luther King, power was held loosely by all kinds of people at the fringes of the movement.

Every now and again, I have these old fogy conversations with people who are like myself, of an older generation, and we say, “The millennials, they feel like a different species. I can’t understand them. I don’t know where they’re coming from.” They’re not a different species, and we can understand where they come from. They simply operate by a different set of assumptions about how the world ought to be organized, they’re network people, not hierarchy people.

I used to work for a magazine at Conde Nast, The New Yorker magazine, which right now, like many media organizations is in the middle of a very bitter union dispute. The junior staff is organized and is really on the verge of a strike, the first strike in the history of the New Yorker magazine. And what’s fascinating, if you know something about the labor unrest at the New Yorker right now is that it does not resemble a traditional labor dispute. This is not about workers versus management. This is about millennials versus boomers.

In every way, this is a conflict that proceeds along generational lines. The New Yorker was organized 75 years ago as a classic hierarchy, as a small group of very powerful editors who were in charge of the magazine. And there was a very strict set of rules that govern how the New Yorker operates. And for 75 years, that’s been fine. But now there is a cohort of younger people at that magazine, and that’s not the way they organize their world. They think of the magazine as a network, and they say, “Well, if it’s a network, then power should be decentralized. If this is a network, then why are we expected to work our way up from the bottom, slowly and painfully over many years? Why are we expected to make nothing when we start? We’re all in this together, shouldn’t we all be equal partners in the fortunes of this magazine?” That’s the tension I’m talking about between hierarchy and network.

Now, is the hierarchy better than the network? Sometimes people my age want to argue, that our way is better. I don’t think that’s a relevant consideration. I think networks are good at some things, they’re incredibly resilient, they’re incredibly adaptable, they’re easy to form, and they are bad at other things. There are some things that hierarchies are better at doing. Hierarchies are really good at carrying out a very complex task, on the other hand, hierarchies, you got to have a good leader. If you don’t have Martin Luther King, you’re sunk. If you don’t have Nelson Mandela, there’s no way you can overturn apartheid, you need that kind of high quality leader.

Networks and hierarchies are just different. I think the more relevant question is, which of those two models, of those two paradigms is winning right now? And to my mind, the answer is obvious, the network’s winning. The model that the millennials and Gen Z has, their default model is the one that’s taking over the workplace. And if you’re someone who is in a position of leadership in the workplace, you have to understand that, that the rules are rapidly changing, and that the hierarchy is very soon going to be a thing of the past.

So, let’s get back to the story I started with, Conde Nast and Teen Vogue. What does this mean? Well, what it means is that if you’re Conde Nast, you cannot hire editors the way you’ve been hiring them for 75 years. The conventional way of bringing in new leadership at magazines, at Conde Nast was the bosses up on the top floor decided who they were going to hire, and announced that hire to the staff. It was like, “This is your new leader.” And that was that, you never say if you’re staff, you just accepted who the new boss was.

But now in the network world, and that’s not how employees think. Their expectation is, “Wait a minute, we’re all in this together. You’re going to bring in a new leader, shouldn’t we be part of the conversation about who that new leader is? Shouldn’t we be involved in this most crucial of decisions about our publication?” I said that the 20 members of Teen Vogue published a tweet explaining their position. And let me just read on the McCammond hiring, let me just read to you what the tweet said.

In a moment, historically anti Asian violence, and amid the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community, we as the staff of Teen Vogue fully reject these sentiments. We are … This is the crucial sentence. We are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful in maintaining the integrity granted to us by our audience. Listen to that second sentence, we are hopeful that an internal conversation will prove fruitful. They’re not saying, “We hate this hire, we hate this woman.” They’re saying, “We’re in this together, can’t we talk about it first as a community? Can’t we have a conversation?”

And if you realize where they’re coming from, that they have the network in mind, you realize that’s a totally legitimate request from where they’re standing. Okay. Second point, when does this whole controversy happen? It happens in the middle of a pandemic. And I think it’s pretty clear that if there hadn’t been a pandemic, I really doubt that this incident would have blown up the way it has, for a couple of reasons. One is obviously that we’re all on edge, and in this moment, lots of things are blowing up that wouldn’t ordinarily blow up. But also I think that we’re talking about a staff here that is in their 20s, it’s Teen Vogue.

And I think it’s really clear that the burden of this pandemic has fallen disproportionately on the young, that it’s not 57-year-olds like me who have really struggled over the last year. No, it’s people in their teens and in their 20s. People for whom they’re at a stage in their life when sociability and interaction is at the key of what it means to be alive, what it means to find your identity, what it means to learn about the world. And for the last year, that ability to be social and to interact with others has been taken away, it’s become impossible.

There’s a concept in psychology that I think is really useful here. And that’s this distinction between high context and low context communication. And low context communication is cut and dry communication, abbreviated, task-oriented depersonalized, it’s about problem solving, about getting things done. High context communication is the opposite. It’s very personal, it’s face to face, or at least it’s individualized. It’s drawn out, it’s nuanced, it’s sensitive. It’s about relationships, not about tasks. Relies very heavily on nonverbal elements, it’s multiple sources of information. It’s communication that’s embedded in culture, and relationships.

And all of us in a typical world rely on both of these, wherever we think they’re appropriate. And one of the ways that you’re an effective leader, or an effective person, or friend is that you understand the distinction between these two types. Think about the difference between the phrase, she broke up with me, and she broke up with me by text. Aware of the difference, same act. Aware of the difference and how you feel about what happened, because one is high context, and one is low context.

Or I lost my job today, or my boss fired me today, or I lost my job today by email. World of difference in how you feel about what happened to you, because losing your job is something that requires high context. And if you lose your job, if you’re informed on email, it’s not appropriate because that’s low context, right? To be an effective leader is to understand the distinction between those two types of communication.

So what happened when the pandemic came along? An awful lot of communication that would have been high context became low context. We haven’t had face-to-face, we haven’t had communication that’s grounded in relationships. We haven’t had people reaching out on a personal level. What we’ve had is group Zooms, what we’ve had is like all kinds of people responding in … Sorry, my cat just walked in and pushed open the door. What we’ve had is all kinds of people responding in the moment and not paying attention to the particulars and context of any relationship.

So, let’s combine these two ideas, and think about how Conde Nast handled this case of Teen Vogue. First of all, we’ve got a group of employees who are operating on a network set of assumptions, that they ought to be included in this conversation, Conde Nast did not include them in the conversation, didn’t reach out to them to have a conversation about who they were going to hire. They simply announced that this is your new boss. And secondly, that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and this was a situation with someone coming in, in an era of controversy that cried out for high context communication. And did they have high context communication around this, in the middle of this very difficult situation? No, they didn’t.

They had a controversy that played out on Twitter, on Instagram, and in press releases. The three most low context form of communication imaginable. So is it any wonder these things got out of control? So what should Teen Vogue have done? Well, first of all, they needed to reach out to every member of the staff before they announced the hiring of Alexi McCammond. And they should have said, “Let’s have a conversation about what’s happening.” They need to understand that people who belong to the network paradigm require that kind of conversation first. They need to be included in these conversations, if decisions are going to sit right with them.

And secondly, they needed to understand that, “Wait a second, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, our staff are isolated, and lonely, and off by themselves, and feeling cut off from the world at a time in their life where they require something very different.” So, that communication has got to be personal. It’s got to be individualized. We need to talk with each member of the staff, one-on-one, to explain to them what’s happening. It had to be a decision in other words that was communicating with feeling and with meaning.

My point is that how you communicate with your employees really matters, especially when your employees had an expectation that they ought to be, need to be included in conversations. And especially in the middle of a pandemic, when people are isolated and lonely. And what you say matters. You have to be able to have a conversation that reaches people, that seems real. That seems like it’s consequential, and intentional, and deliberate.

So, if they had done that, if they had communicated meaningfully, would they have had egg in their face? No, they wouldn’t. Would they have avoided this controversy? Yes, they would. Would they have had advertisers bolting? No, they wouldn’t. Now, because I’m a writer, and because what happened to Alexi McCammond really matter to me, really upset me, I’m going to read to you what I think the leadership of Conde Nast should have said to their employees. “We would like to hire Alexi McCammond as our new editor in chief, because we believe she’s a fine journalist. But in making that offer, we have taken a chance, we have gambled that she is not the same person at 27 that she was at 17. And we have gambled that when she says she’s genuinely remorseful about what she said when she was a teenager, that she is telling the truth. We would ask all of you to take the same chance on her, because there can be no genuine diversity for anyone in the workforce if we’re not willing to extend that basic human courtesy to others.

So, before you pass judgment on who she is, or what she believes, or the threats she poses to your wellbeing, meet her, talk to her, challenge her, take the measure of her, see if she is willing to convince you of her transformation. And at the same time, take the opportunity to learn something equally valuable of yourself, that you’re able to offer forgiveness to others, even when they know at some point, they have said things that were profoundly hurtful to you. We are a magazine that intends to instruct girls on how to be women. If we cannot be open to the possibility of another’s redemption, then why are we putting out this magazine every day?”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask of intelligent adults who run a multinational corporation, that they can communicate meaningfully like that to their employees. And if they were not willing to prepare for the ground with their employees in that way, if they were not willing to communicate meaningfully, if we’re not up to the challenge of running a modern workplace in a difficult time, they should never have offered that job to Alexi McCammond. That’s what made me so angry. All of us in positions of authority must do better. Thank you.

Now, back to you, Nicole, I’d be happy to answer some questions.

Nicole:

Great, thank you, Malcolm. It’s just so interesting that the last point about high context communications and low context communications, is there anything different from the written communication that employee would read, or should this be delivered at a town hall? Unfortunately, not everyone could be there. Is it in video? Do you have a point of view on the people who need to receive that communication and change the way they feel about it?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I don’t think it matters, specifically, what modality you’re using, I think it’s how you use that modality. So all the things you mentioned help, I think what matters is that the person that you’re talking to has to believe that you are talking to them as an individual, that you’re not just sending out some mass communication that is indifferent to the particulars of the situation, or they’re not even more importantly, it’s important that they not read a press release, or read a third party telling them what’s going on. It has to feel personal, that’s really what high context is.

This is high context communication that you and I are having right now, Nicole, because you asked me a question and I’m answering that question. And so both of us have an opportunity to think about and reflect on the nature of our interaction. If I was just randomly reading off questions that had been asked in advance, before people even knew what I was going to talk about, that’s not high context, that just feels like I’m filling in the Q&A portion at the end of the speech. And so I think it’s about the spirit into which the communication is entered.

Nicole:

That’s really helpful. And another piece that’s so intriguing on the network and the hierarchy, and in the context of business, you obviously can’t have full network to get things done, especially if you’re the CEO, you’re a leader, you have to deliver certain things, you have to execute on a strategy. What I heard you saying was there’s no way to be able to do that in an older framework, or to people who need that that newer network framework. So can you talk a little bit about blending those, especially in the workplace?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah. So it’s funny, I think what we’re moving towards is a hybrid model, really. It’s funny, I started a company two and a half years ago now with my best friend, and we’re up to a very small, we’re like 50 employees. And we have lots of millennials, and we have these conversations. It’s not that they’re fully in the network mode. But they still understand that we need to have leaders and managers and, a CEO, and all that stuff, but they just expect us, those of us who are in leadership, to behave differently. And they really do want to be involved in a way that … When I was 25, I had zero expectation that leaders were going to involve me in key decisions.

They these guys want to be involved. They don’t think that they should control those decisions. But their point is, I’m working here is my company. My identity is tied up in this place, involve me in this decision, keep me in the loop, listen to what I have to say, you don’t have to follow it, but at least listen. That’s what I think is a difference.

For people my age, it’s hard to make that shift, because it’s not the way things were, in the 80s when I started out my bosses were not involving me in key decisions. But that’s what the network model means. I just think is that they want the kind of day to day communication within the organization to feel different, to feel more inclusive.

Nicole:

And how do you convince leaders who maybe were brought up in that same form of leadership and have experiences where that worked well, or that’s all they knew? How do you convince them that they need to change and that high context communication has to be the core of them, driving that strategy?

Malcolm Gladwell:

It is really hard. I mean, I don’t think this [inaudible 00:34:58] otherwise. I mean, and I’m sure you’ve had more of these conversations that I have, but I have had literally dozens of conversations with people of my generation in positions of leadership, who just roll their eyes at how hard it is to work with millennials and Gen Z. I mean, they have no patience for it, they want to get rid of them all, they think they’re all nuts. That is not the appropriate response.

People of my generation need to stop saying that millennials are from Mars, they’re not from Mars, they just have a different way of thinking about how the world should be organized. And by the way, the way they think about that is in many ways totally legit. So I just think it has to start with that recognition. The kind of casual contempt that my generation I think has, we need to put a sock at.

Nicole:

Casual contempt, I like that. No, it’s interesting. When I’m speaking to CEOs, it’s the ones who want to learn from people different than them. They want to hear from millennials, they want to understand what motivates them and ultimately no surprise, those are the leaders that are most effective. How do we think about as we’re moving from hierarchy to network, or at the very least, we have to coexist when we think about the different cascades of leadership, or the effective somebodies line manager on them versus the CEO, maybe if they’re in a company of 100,000 people, is there an opportunity in this network model for new heads that can help lead many powerful movements?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Yeah, that’s a really good point, because what happens in a network model is that power gets pushed out to the edges. That’s the whole idea that you’re … There is a real opportunity here in other words, for people, middle managers, even lower middle managers to play a much larger role in communication, there’s no longer the expectation that everything has to come from the top.

And so there’s, like I said, this is a serious opportunity for organizations to give responsibility to people who would otherwise be overlooked in this role. The thing that’s fascinating to me about networks is there isn’t the same reverence for position. It’s like when I think of the young people in our company, they don’t need, “I’m the president of the company.” They want the president to be involved in these conversations. They just need somebody to be involved in this conversation. They’re not hung up on a title the way that I would have been at that age. So that’s really liberating. I think, like I said, this is good news not bad news.

Nicole:

Yeah, I think that that’s an important point. We talk a lot about democratizing communications, and everybody who’s a leader has to be able to use that effective communication or definitely high context, especially now. We’ve got an interesting question. Do you have an example? The Teen Vogue was great and I loved the way you told the story of course, is there a company that you’ve seen handle one of those situations in the right way? So, they might not have had you to pen that eloquent letter, but have you seen anything recently that’s been the right one?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, by definition, the company that has handled it the right way we wouldn’t have heard about it. The whole point is you do it the right way, you don’t show up in the news.

Nicole:

Good point.

Malcolm Gladwell:

And everyone else who has been laughing at you or rolling their eyes at you … So, I can think of examples in our own. We had an issue in my company where it wasn’t about something that happened within our company was more about the media industry has been very kind of … There’s been a lot of controversies like this, around diversity and around these questions of personal ethics, and we had a moment when some of our younger employees were upset. And this wasn’t my idea but our CEO, my friend Jacob. We called an immediate all staff … There was this pandemic, so it was an all staff Zoom. And we just walked through it. I mean, we had a very open and honest conversation with everyone in the company, and it was emotional, and it was really important.

And the outside world never learned about it. But I think our willingness to kind of … We could have shrugged it off, we’re all super busy, it wasn’t about our company. We just decided we would deal with this. And I think that most people came out of that feeling better about who we are as a company, and our willingness to talk openly about difficult subjects. But it was very much high context. And I took the opportunity to tell the staff, we have many new staff members, and I talked about my parents, and my co founders parents, and the values that they stood for, and how we had created a company in their image.

And I remember saying this and thinking, “This has never …” When I joined the workforce, the idea that my boss would have addressed everyone in the company and talked about his parents, it’s just crazy. At the Washington Post in 1987, no one talked about their parents in terms of leadership. But now we do. By the way, it was kind of great. I mean, it was a good moment, I thought it was appropriate to tell the people in the staff where me and my co-founder came from.

Nicole:

I know, I think the those stories are so important as well, because it defines us as human. Everybody can can relate to a parent and a story and whether it’s struggle or hardship, and I think especially in a pandemic, when we’re craving those personal connections, it’s the stories that bring us together, which is so incredibly powerful.

How do you think about kind of back to the network and, and leaders owning these conversations? So, at your company, or at my company, which we do, we can all sit on Zoom and have a conversation, even a hard one to have. But if you have 10,000, or 50,000, or 100,000, or a million employees in different parts of the world, working different shifts, how do you translate these conversations across the network, and also in a way that is somehow unified? Because you have to imagine that there could be somebody at often one of the nodes, who goes off the range a bit. So how would you think about that?

Malcolm Gladwell:

Well, I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast set of rules, I think the important thing is that these conversations be … I use that free phrase, they should have feeling and meaning. And I think that that’s the key that whoever is engaged in these kinds of conversations needs to stop and think first, that how can I communicate those two things. So feeling would be an emotion and meaning would be an intention and that’s what people are looking for in communication, that there is either a feeling or an intention behind it.

When we think it’s just kind of rote, we tune it out. When we think that there is that kind of consideration behind it, we embrace it. So that would be my first, and part of that is that there’s [inaudible 00:43:50] example of the advantage in using these communication modes to be unpredictable. The story I just told about this, when I shared about me and my co-founders parents to the staff, that’s an unpredictable communication. And that’s what made it powerful, is it stood out. People are like, “Oh wow, I thought we were having a business meeting.”

You should do it every time. But like mixing in that kind of thing … And it gives I think that communication mode, more kind of richness. When people understand that this is not just a way to communicate our fourth quarter numbers, or to give a new HR policy. This is a way for leadership to share something that matters to them with their colleagues in the company like that that’s I think what could make it real.

Nicole:

Yeah, and again, probably contextual. There’s a story to tell, maybe around strategy or vision that wouldn’t necessarily be the HR policy. So, one last, we’re about at time. But if you could leave everybody with one thing, I mean, I’ve learned three things to think differently, but if they’re going to go back to their organizations, whether they’re helping a CEO with their communication, whether they are a CEO, they’re a leader responsible for a group of people, what would you give them?

Malcolm Gladwell:

I would say that understanding the network model, and what people who have that paradigm want and need does not threaten your authority as a leader, it enhances it. So the instinctive thought is always, “Oh, if these people want to be part of the decision then I no longer have autonomy over my decision making.” Like, you can imagine the people of Conde Nast saying, “I want to hire Alexis McCammond, but if I open up the conversation to the whole staff then I have a situation with the staff for choosing their leader, and that’s crazy. You know that, right? And get all [inaudible 00:46:09].

But I think between us that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about ceding control or decisions to everyone else. We’re talking about a kind of consideration of employees that … What you need to know is you’re explaining your process to them, and inviting them to understand why you’re thinking the way you’re thinking. That’s not threatening, that’s actually kind of empowering for both the leader and the organization.

Nicole:

I love that. Malcolm, thank you so much for joining us. As usual, your stories were incredible, and I know that everyone now has a new perspective for the network model and what they can do personally, to help use that to really connect with and motivate their people. So thank you so much for joining us.

Malcolm Gladwell:

Thank you, Nicole.

 

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