By Michel Hogan
It was a shambolic few weeks in Uber land. And the task they faced was one I refer to as turning around the Titanic with a paddle. That’s what trying to change an organisation’s well-entrenched culture can feel like — not impossible, but hard to do. And one reason is the way people think about and use values.
Values are the flip side of the org identity coin. Working along with purpose, they provide the foundation for how the organisation goes about their business and sit at the front end of the formula that results in the brand:
Uber was placed under the microscope. I can’t recall a company’s culture and operations being scrutinised by a former Attorney General outside an investigation into criminality. Extraordinary. But grown men appearing to use a billion-dollar company as a de facto frat house is not something that happens every day either.
Uber’s core values were one of the areas Eric Holder’s report focused on. And on face value, his advice to Uber seems solid and worth consideration even if you’re not facing investigation.
From an article about Eric Holder’s recommendations*, Uber should:
…reduce the overall number of values, and eliminate those values which have been identified as redundant or as having been used to justify poor behavior, including Let Builders Build, Always Be Hustlin’, Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping, and Principled Confrontation; and encourage senior leaders to exhibit the values on a daily basis and to model a more collaborative and inclusive Uber culture.
The recommendations above break down into three parts. First, have fewer values. Second, have values that appeal to people’s better nature. Third, make sure leaders walk the talk and model the behaviours they want to see.
I’m going to focus on the second point he makes, but before I do, a couple of notes about points one and three. Companies often have too many values — in general, anything over five is impossible to use in any consistent and deliberate way, and I’ve seen organisations thrive with as few as three. When the list gets too long, there’s a good chance it includes aspirations wrapped up as values instead of deeply held non-negotiables.
The third point of walking the talk is imperative, and not just for leadership, but from what I’ve read, Uber has been walking its talk. The values they were walking just headed the company towards a cliff. And that brings me to the second recommendation and the title of this post.
There is no such thing as values that are all good. Every value I’ve ever come across can (and usually does) have a dark side. And conversely, values that seem ‘bad’ can be beneficial.
In his book Built to Last, author and business thinker Jim Collins says* “the key is not what core values the organisation has, but that it has core values”. A controversial point of view for the kumbaya, better angels crowd, but one I agree with in principle.
People argue growth and change in an organisation mean their values should also change. What’s more likely is how the organisation uses those values needs to change.
For example, look at the Uber value of “always be hustlin’”. I can see how readily it could flip from ‘eager to get stuff done’ in the early days, to ‘run over anything that gets in the way’ when bolstered by the hubris of success.
Any value can flip.
A favourite value for many is ‘friendly and welcoming’. On one side of the coin, it leads to amiable, happy workplaces where people say hi when they pass in the hallways and there’s always a birthday cake for someone in the kitchen. What could possibly go wrong?
Flip to the dark side, and those organisations struggle to deal with conflict and holding people accountable. Dealing with bad news or bad performance gets slapped down as negativity, and there’s little space for the vagary of individual moods. What starts out as camaraderie ends up a joker’s smile.
If you want to learn something from Uber’s fall from grace, take a peek under the hood of your values and see what dark side lurks. But instead of going the blame and change route, acknowledge it. And do the work to manage the dark side in how you use the value.
Keep the energy and endeavour of “always be hustlin’” but ditch the arrogance. Keep the smile of ‘friendly and welcoming’ but make room for the occasional bad day.
This article was first published on SmartCompany, and this updated version can be found in the upcoming book “The Unheroic Work.”
Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep.
* Quartz, Alison Griswold, ‘Eric Holder is the Disappointed Dad Uber Desperately Needs’; Jim Collins, Built to Last, p. 222.