Uber, Words, and Snowflakes

Last week, Uber board member Arianna Huffington held an all-hands meeting with employees to outline the steps that will be taken to change the culture to one of inclusiveness and collaboration.

While the sexist comment made to her by another board member, David Bonderman, received attention, something else stood out as Ms. Huffington explained the culture change that will be required at Uber — the board of directors decided to change the sign on the War Room to one that reads Peace Room.

Words and pictures usually mean something, but paraphrasing a former colleague of mine, “A picture is worth a thousand words, but you never know which thousand someones will choose.” The notion that a misogynistic and toxic culture can change with signage is naïve and more likely to drive cynicism than change.

A challenge with non-executive board members is that employees rarely know them and they rarely know the employees. Board members meet on the top floor or offsite and spend little time with the rank and file employees doing most of the work. This creates a trust gap just due to lack of familiarity and connection. It is likely that the new Peace Room label will generate more head shaking than it will provide behavioral change and transformation. In fact, for defenders of the old culture, walking past the sign may act as fuel to double-down on the familiar and reject the new way.

If the CEO was leading the charge as he made strides toward transforming himself first, changing the name on a room may make a difference. But in a company founded, grown, and run by and as a disrupter, the notion that people should give peace a chance is laughable. Changing the signage also asks people to think their way to a new way of acting — a difficult task for anyone.

Further complicating change at Uber is the absence of most of the C-level team. The CEO is on leave, and there is no COO, CMO, or President, leaving the daily leadership to a committee of 14 executives. And this group is temporarily replacing a CEO who is reputed to, historically, require every meaningful decision to flow through him. It is reasonable to question how a committee is expected to lead any company toward cultural transformation, let alone one in which the leadership style gap is so enormous. A further complication is that if everyone (or 14 people) is in charge, nobody is.

The Power of Snowflakes

To be clear, the public stories about Uber’s work environment and culture range from troubling to sickening. And when people highlight or express their disdain for the behavior, there are inevitably others who refer to them as snowflakes. This is a code word frequently used to gloss over sexism, harassment, racism, and misogyny. It is a form of gaslighting intended to cause the people experiencing the hostility to feel as if they are over-reacting. It paints a picture of political correctness and its cousin — weakness. It is meant to normalize the behavior, dull the senses, and allow the bad actors to carry on as things were before — often under the veneer that change is happening. Ignoring the bad behavior displays a lack of courage and maturity in the leadership of an organization and leads to hostile work environments where nobody is free to do their best work.

Uber is valued as high as $70 billion, so it must be doing something right. It is. Uber is changing the way the world moves from point to point. It has disrupted the transportation industry faster than any invention in history, including Henry Ford’s Model T which sold over 15 million cars in 19 years. Uber completes about 5.5 million trips each day, surpassed 2 billion total rides in June 2016, six months after hitting the one billion mark, and has existed for only eight years. It also had a net loss of $2.8 billion in 2016 and has raised as much as $16 billion in debt and equity financing to fund its growth and operating losses.

It’s clear that investors believe in the Uber model. It’s also clear that there must be a shift in culture and behavior that allows the company to scale with dignity and respect for its employees as well as its customers.

This is a case of what got Uber here won’t get them there — to a sustainable, enduring company that role models more than industry-disrupting technology.

While we are chasing the next financial target, fund raise, product launch, or new market, it’s our responsibility as leaders to consider how we are pursuing results. Every decision we make has intended and unintended consequences. The key to high-performance leadership is figuring out what true north looks like for ourselves and our companies concerning values and behaviors, and making sure we arrive at the destination as the kind of people we’d like to be around.

Takeaway: The thing about snowflakes is that when you have enough of them you can make snowballs, snow forts, ice castles, and glaciers. Don’t fall into the trap of labeling dissenting opinions or the people that state them as a nuisance. There is always something to be learned about ourselves and our leadership if we are open to listening, discussing, and changing our approach. And as the Uber example highlights, creating an enduring company requires acknowledging the problem, caring about it, refocusing leadership priorities, making a plan, role modeling the new behaviors, engaging the team, and persistently executing. It will not happen at all without leadership showing the way.