What It Really Means to Be the Adult in the Room

Sheryl Sandberg, the “responsible” grown-up at Facebook, had one job: Make the company more and more money.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg during congressional testimony, September 2018 (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, often has been called the company’s “adult in the room.” A former Clinton administration chief of staff, Sandberg ran both sales and philanthropic divisions at Google before joining Facebook. Her 2013 book Lean In made her a feminist business icon, of a certain stripe.

And so it was particularly devastating when a New York Times report earlier this month portrayed her as a bumbler, sinking the company further into the murk. Facing deepening controversy over Russian meddling, sloppy data hygiene, and other ills on its platform, the Facebook of Sandberg’s operational leadership entrenched its position, doing Beltway-style opposition research to discredit its critics rather than to address and solve its problems.

Among those critics was the billionaire investor George Soros, who had called Facebook a “menace to society” at the World Economic Forum in Davos this January. Facebook directed consultants to portray Soros as part of an anti-Facebook conspiracy, and some of that effort’s output veered into anti-Semitism.

Originally, Sandberg denied that some of those efforts—such as hiring Definers Public Affairs, a communications firm that reportedly ran the Soros efforts—were conducted at her direction or even with her knowledge. But apparently, Sandberg was more involved. She reportedly requested “an examination into why Mr. Soros had criticized the tech companies and whether he stood to gain financially from the attacks.” Specifically, Sandberg had emailed Facebook colleagues asking if Soros had sold Facebook’s stock short, a way of betting against the company’s stock price.

Most obviously, Sandberg’s interest in a hypothetical Soros short position—which also recalls Elon Musk’s obsession with short sellers, the consequences of which were dire—looks like an affirmation of Sandberg’s, and Facebook’s, ongoing communication strategy. Over the last year, a barrage of denials and deflections about malfeasance and error, from data-extraction practices to security breaches, have seeped out of Facebook, often later confirmed to be as bad or worse than initial reports indicated. It’s looking more and more clear that Sandberg, and Facebook, can’t be trusted. If that’s news to you as 2018 nears a close, then you haven’t been paying attention.

The obsession with shorting also suggests that Facebook cares only about the financial motivations of highly capitalized individuals and institutions (Facebook has been a favorite investment of hedge funds), which belies the company’s ongoing insistence that it is a force for social good, including Sandberg’s own crusade for women at work. As my colleague Olga Khazan put it, these days “Sandberg comes off looking more like just another executive shark than a feminist STEM star.”

This, too, should come as no surprise. Businesspeople are in business for the money, won directly through profits and indirectly through the forces of market speculation. And yet, for more than a decade now, the technology industry has persuaded the public, and the street, that the efforts of firms such as Facebook and Google are conducted first for reasons of social benefit. To “change the world,” as their leaders intone, even as it becomes clear that some of the changes in question are often detrimental rather than beneficial. Perhaps it was inevitable that these optimistic, tech-industry entreaties of the aughts—make the world more open and connected, don’t be evil, and so on—would be revealed as mere Pollyannaism, naive but ultimately righteous in their ambition.

Facebook’s own public defenses lean in, as it were, to that interpretation. Mark Zuckerberg opened his testimony before Congress earlier this year by insisting that “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company.” More recently, as the company has reeled from report after report suggesting that it knew more, and earlier, about how its platform was being used for election meddling, its executives repeated over and over again that it had been “too slow” to respond to Russian election interference and other techniques of manipulation on the platform.

That’s a smart parry, because it implicitly reinforces the righteousness of the company and its mission. It’s not okay to have been slow, the messaging suggests, but it’s understandable given the company’s ambitious, global optimism. “Connecting people” is difficult work, so cut us some slack, the company seems to be saying.

In this context, Sandberg has an impossible task. She was hired to be “the adult in the room,” that much is true. But that epithet has been interpreted too literally and without guile. It was never really meant to involve deepening the sophistication with which Facebook understands “community” or “connecting people.” Her job was to make the company profitable, and she did.

But a public that would be so shocked and confused that a top executive at a top-five global corporation would do whatever it takes to develop and preserve wealth and power for her firm and herself betrays a naïveté no less embarrassing than Zuckerberg’s idealism and optimism. These companies exist to build wealth and power for themselves, first and foremost. It’s time to assume that outcome from the start, rather than gasping in surprise when it turns out to be the case.