(Or why, without its reviled values, Uber could become an also-ran)
It is too early to gauge the extent of the commercial damage caused by the recent revelations of toxic culture at Uber. Much will depend on whether people prioritise the immediate need for a cheap, convenient ride over their deeply held beliefs about fairness in the workplace. If Amazon's success is anything to go by, Uber probably has little to fear in this regard.
But that doesn't mean no harm has been done. And I'm not just talking about the enforced resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. There has been real harm to employees, not least Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer whose blog post triggered the recent turmoil; and this, in turn, has the potential to harm Uber's ability to attract the best talent in the future. Meanwhile, the revelations will also be grist to the mill of the "establishment" Uber has delighted in disrupting - potentially making it harder to win public support for its continued expansion.
The biggest commercial threat, though, is that the company ceases to operate with the same confidence, coherence and fleetness of foot that have been the hallmarks of its success to date. Like the CEO in whose image they were made, Uber's values are no longer deemed acceptable – and that could have a paralysing effect on the company.
Why? Because Uber is a paragon of decentralisation, empowering regional heads to "be themselves" and make the decisions necessary to hit their revenue and growth targets. The now infamous 14 values were only formally codified as late as 2015, but they were not new. As Brad Stone relates in his excellent book, The Upstarts, Uber's very first regional managers were explicitly told to go "hustle". From the get-go, they were expected to be "super-pumped", to "step on toes" and "confront" everything and everyone who stood in their way. When Kalanick formalised the values, he used a set of phrases that had been watchwords for years.
Indeed, anyone who doubts the power of corporate values to drive coherent decision making and fuel business success, while dispensing with the rigours of managerial control, need look no further than Uber. Putting moral objections to one side for just a moment, let's recognise that the values worked. And they did so for three reasons:
1. They were in sync with the company's aggressively disruptive business strategy.
2. They were clearly articulated, modelled and championed by the leaders.
3. They were used consistently and overtly to guide and justify decision making.
These are the conditions under which strong, values-led cultures are built. And the last point is really the whole point. For this is what happens when values become what behavioural scientists call heuristics - simple, often automatically applied mental shortcuts. In situation x, we do y. We don't have to think. We just know. We operate on what feels like instinct, but is actually a very lean, very efficient form of corporate policy. We need no bureaucracy, no time consuming process. We can each act with confidence and autonomy and, as a consequence, we get things done.
Now, let's re-introduce our moral compass. The fact is that Uber's values quite expressly prioritised business performance over human decency. Morally, we can therefore denounce them. As employees, we can say: "I do not want to work there." As employers, we can follow the lead of those who say: "I do not want to employ anyone who thrived there." And yes, as customers, we can indeed delete the app and go in search of a black cab with its light on that's prepared to go south of the river (or whatever the local equivalent is).
Whether many people do any of the above or not, the fact remains that Uber can no longer use its erstwhile values to justify decisions - internally or externally. Uber’s remaining leaders can no longer champion and reward the values they have hitherto lived by. Its HR people can no longer cite "high performance" as a reason for not disciplining discriminatory behaviour. And its regional managers no longer have a rulebook by which to operate.
Can it reinvent a new set of values - or aspirations - quickly? Will renaming its War Room as the Peace Room really make any difference? Or will it now be doomed to espouse a set of "values" which belies, rather than informs, its operating culture?
My bet is the latter. And while that may sound like a machiavellian recipe for continued success, I suspect it will instead bring the same sort of confusion, stress and anxiety to its workforce as exists in most big corporate companies.
For as the great cultural theorist Edgar Schein said, human minds need cognitive stability. And nothing causes anxiety in the workplace quite so much as the disconnect between how we say we do things and how we really do things. Under such circumstances, success is much harder to come by.