by Gael O’Brien

“The best things leaders can do,” leadership expert Joanne Ciulla said in a dinner conversation with ethics officers and others, “is create an environment where behaving ethically is easy.” Ciulla, Academic Director at Rutgers Institute of Ethical Leadership spent a week in November as a Verizon Visiting Professor at Bentley University.

That advice applies to leaders taking a fresh look at their culture, as well as newcomers facing down challenges of a toxic culture they’ve inherited. As to the latter, I’ve been wondering how Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi will approach culture change and problems left by his predecessor, founder Travis Kalanick before his ouster. In June 2017, an independent report on Uber’s workplace, commissioned by its  board, outlined 47 recommendations including defining values in ways that made them more accessible and easily understood and soliciting employee input on improving the culture.

Uber’s “Bro” Culture

When I saw Khosrowshahi’s November 2017 LinkedIn blog announcing “Uber’s new cultural norms,” my filter was whether those norms would make it easier to behave ethically. My concern is that they won’t.  Starting with cultural norms is a shorthand that short circuits the ethical values that enable real change to occur. Cultural norms are set by a group, like slavery was in the South before the Civil War. In the absence of a core of ethical principles explicitly tied to and shaping cultural norms, the norms won’t be effective drivers in the transition out of Uber’s “bro” culture.

Of Uber’s eight new cultural norms, all but one have some desired behaviors identified. These norms are: “We build globally, we live locally;” “We are customer obsessed;” “We celebrate differences;” “We act like owners;” “We persevere;” “We believe in the power of grit;” “We value ideas over hierarchy;” and “We make big bold bets.” The only cultural norm standing alone is “We do the right thing. Period.” In the context of Uber’s past, intention needs considerable support. It can’t be a 30,000 foot view with everyone nodding, assuming they have it nailed, but up-close conditioned to see the expedient as right.

Making Integrity “Clear” in Decisions

Khosrowshahi’s blog described the inclusive process determining the new culture norms  — 20 focus groups, conversations, ideas submitted by more than 1,200 employees (out of more than 10,000 non-drivers) and employee votes. He wrote that employees want to make clear “that we will put integrity at the core of all our decisions….” The next focus then should be around clarifying how integrity shows up and what will enable the transition from “bro” to a workplace where respect, fairness, inclusion and protection from discrimination and harassment of any kind are the norm.

What complicates any culture change is the reality that decades of research tell us we are overconfident about our own ethicalness. In addition, we are overly optimistic about our own ethical behavior. (See the “Holier than Thou” study.) Therefore, especially when intentions are “to put integrity at the core of all our decisions” and “We will do the right thing. Period.” they have to be sealed into the culture. This occurs in a collective understanding of what these commitments look like; what consistent behaviors and attitudes are involved; what will challenge the intentions, and how to overcome that? These conversations should start with leadership teams across the company and then in each department. These ethical principles need to be understood and regularly reinforced in Uber’s global community. How non-employee drivers are brought into the conversation, with expectations set, will determine the wholeness of the brand around these principles.

Where Behaving Ethically is Easy

Khosrowshahi had a 12-year track record at Expedia around support of women and diversity and being a great place to work. These skills will be central to Uber’s evolution. However, those of us who’ve worked inside companies undergoing culture change after a crisis, know the degrees of resistance that can undermine progress. It is inevitable some employees may vehemently dispute the picture of Uber painted by former engineer Susan Fowler and what needs to change.

However, to be a place where behaving ethically is easy, connect the ethical values. Closely-held ethical values – introduced, continuously made relevant to every-day work and relationships, and owned and modeled at all levels – build the trust and motivation to create necessary shifts. A focus on ethical values fuels the desired cultural norms taking hold.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University


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