SAN FRANCISCO — Soon after joining Twitter in 2019, Dantley Davis gathered his staff in a conference room at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Twitter was too nice, he told the group, and he was there to change it.
Mr. Davis, the company’s new vice president of design, asked employees to go around the room, complimenting and critiquing one another. Tough criticism would help Twitter improve, he said. The barbs soon flew. Several attendees cried during the two-hour meeting, said three people who were there.
Mr. Davis, 43, has played a key role in a behind-the-scenes effort over the past two years to remake Twitter’s culture. The company had long been slow to build products, and under pressure from investors and users, executives landed on a diagnosis: Twitter’s collaborative environment had calcified, making workers reluctant to criticize one another. Mr. Davis, the company believed, was one of the answers to that problem.
The turmoil that followed revealed the trade-offs and conflicts that arise when companies attempt dramatic cultural shifts and put the onus on hard-nosed managers to make that change happen.
Mr. Davis repeatedly clashed with employees because of his blunt style. His treatment of workers was also the subject of several investigations by Twitter’s employee relations department, and of complaints to Jack Dorsey, the chief executive, that too many people were leaving.
Company officials acknowledge that Mr. Davis may have gone too far at times, and he has promised to tone down the way he criticizes people. But they make no apologies and have even given him a promotion. Employee dissatisfaction, they said, is sometimes the cost of shaking things up.
“This is actually a Twitter culture change that we’ve been trying to drive,” Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of human resources, said in an interview.
A former Facebook and Netflix executive, Mr. Davis, who is now the company’s chief design officer, reports directly to Mr. Dorsey. When hired, he was told to revamp Twitter’s design team and make it more diverse. His work was considered a model for other Twitter executives, and the company believes the diversity of his department improved under his leadership. Twitter reports its diversity statistics annually but does not break out numbers for specific parts of the company.
“This was a turnaround role, and that meant changes to staff, changes to our work, changes to how we collaborate,” Mr. Davis said in a recent interview.
He frequently spoke with his staff about challenges he faced as a Black and Korean man in the technology industry, and won accolades for his design work. He spearheaded forays into new media, like audio tweets and chats, and championed efforts to clean up the conversation on Twitter, including prompts that encourage people to read articles before sharing them.
But Mr. Davis’s management style was a bracing shift for employees at Twitter, which has not usually offered the astronomical salaries that are normal at other social media outfits. Instead, the company has tried to attract workers with a welcoming culture typified in a hashtag, #LoveWhereYouWork. Fourteen current and former Twitter employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly, spoke with unusual candor to The New York Times about the last two years working with Mr. Davis and the changes he brought to their workplace.
As Twitter executives have driven toward a feistier version of their company, tension has not been limited to the design department and its adjoining research group. Workers have complained, sometimes bitterly, about being demoralized.
“We’ve got teams across the board that are reporting things like, ‘We’re concerned about our future,’” Ms. Christie said. “They talk about fear or psychological unsafety.”
The conflicts at Twitter have been echoed at other tech companies where executives are taking a harder line with employees who had grown accustomed to accommodating workplaces. Coinbase, a cryptocurrency company that went public this year, banned political discussions at work and offered exit packages to employees who disagreed with the rule. And this month, Google faces a trial before an administrative law judge after the National Labor Relations Board accused it of wrongfully firing employees who protested company decisions.
“Any kind of major change in blueprint comes with a risk,” said Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University.
Cultural shifts rile employees and sometimes cause financial instability, he said. “There is always this balance between: Do we do it by socialization and having a strong culture, or do we do it with money and cracking down on people?”
Although some Twitter design employees were rattled by the meeting in which they were required to critique one another, Mr. Davis said several had thanked him for the candid feedback.
“We’re kind to one another,” he said. “But also being nice means that you might shy away from saying the thing that needs to be said for us to move forward together.”
Mr. Davis told his staff that he would push for improved performance, and he quickly criticized, demoted or cut workers, more than a dozen workers said. When employees were let go, he and other managers sometimes followed their departures with emails to the staff remarking on their poor work.
Many employees feared they would be next on the chopping block. Although Mr. Davis, who manages 200 people, stressed the importance of giving critical feedback, he sometimes lashed out at workers who criticized him, employees said.
But others believed Mr. Davis’s changes were essential to Twitter’s survival. The company needed to toughen up, one employee said.
By late 2019, complaints surfaced to Twitter’s employee relations unit, which is staffed by lawyers who investigate workplace issues. The unit looked into accusations that Mr. Davis had created a culture of fear. Among the concerns was that he had made a biased remark to another executive.
The comment occurred during a meeting in which Liz Ferrall-Nunge, who led Twitter’s research team, shared concerns about diversity at Twitter and referred to her experience as a woman of color. Mr. Davis seemed to dismiss her, telling Ms. Ferrall-Nunge, who is Asian American, that if she wore sunglasses, she would pass as white, three people familiar with the investigation said.
Ms. Ferrall-Nunge, who left Twitter in 2020, declined to comment. Twitter declined to comment on the record about the episode, citing employee privacy.
Twitter employees who were aware of the episode said they expected better from Mr. Davis because of his outspokenness about diversity. Others defended his track record on diversity, noting that white executives were given more slack while making less effort on diversity issues.
In a lengthy Google document sent in February 2020, Mr. Davis praised Twitter’s friendly culture. But he criticized the quality of design and argued that employees were too quick to say yes to projects when they should instead provide criticism. The overly kind atmosphere stifled honest feedback, he argued.
Employees who received the memo noticed that, in the margins, they were able to view comments from human resources representatives and managers who had edited the document. They were asking Mr. Davis to tone it down. He said other people had told him that it had the proper balance of “tough love.”
That summer, Mr. Davis became the target of online harassment. Extremist groups believed he was involved in kicking them off Twitter, he said. He received death threats, and his personal information was published online.
“I would get a death threat at 12 o’clock, and then at 12:05 I would have a meeting,” Mr. Davis said.
By early 2021, another employee relations investigation into his behavior was underway, in response to complaints that the culture of fear persisted. Ms. Christie said that employee relations looked into every employee complaint and that Mr. Davis was trying to change his behavior.
“We’ve got to find our own Twitter way of direct feedback that’s still empathetic, that’s still respectful,” she said. “That’s not an easy combination.” Mr. Davis was “heartbroken” by the employee complaints, she added.
Company data was beginning to reveal widespread discontent on the design and research teams. Attrition under Mr. Davis had risen and was about double the rate of overall attrition at Twitter, employees said. In annual surveys, employees who worked for Mr. Davis consistently said at a higher rate than other Twitter employees that they felt “psychologically unsafe.”
“I’ve been hearing and absorbing feedback about the culture and morale,” Mr. Davis wrote in a note shared with his management team that was seen by The Times. “I love and deeply respect this team, it’s the strongest team I’ve ever worked with, and yet it’s clear that many of you aren’t feeling that from me. I’m taking a step back to think about my style and approach.”
In March, after a year of battling election and coronavirus misinformation, many employees struggled with burnout. Mr. Davis announced that he planned to move away from the performance culture that had been his mandate.
“My goal is for us to transition to a team of belonging, which is less transactional and more focused on care and support,” Mr. Davis wrote in an email to employees. He cited the harassment he had received, and asked employees to be patient if they felt he had not done enough to support them.
“I was not celebrating wins, I was focused entirely on what was wrong,” Mr. Davis said, describing feedback he received from his staff. “Since then, I spent some time working on this. We have been celebrating wins, we have been finding ways for the team to come together.”
Current employees said sudden firings and harsh feedback continued. They found evidence for their concerns in Nikkia Reveillac, the head of Twitter’s research department.
Ms. Reveillac told Mr. Davis and other employees that his defensiveness made it intimidating for employees to offer him feedback. In May, she went to Mr. Dorsey. In a message she described to her co-workers, she told him that the culture under Mr. Davis was toxic and causing untenable attrition. Mr. Dorsey did not respond.
Weeks later, Ms. Reveillac was abruptly pushed out of the company and locked out of her work accounts. “Team, I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye. I love and miss you,” she tweeted. Ms. Reveillac and Twitter declined to comment on her departure.
In a staff meeting shortly after, two people who attended said, Mr. Davis told employees that they should not assume Ms. Reveillac had left the company because of conflicts with him. But without a clear explanation, employees were left wondering about whether her sudden departure was a response to going to Mr. Dorsey with her concerns.
Mike Isaac contributed reporting.