Why do so many people think that companies only focus on building strong, positive workplace cultures?
The fact is, organizations are ALWAYS building their culture — whether they mean to or not.
You know what I’m talking about: Those kinds of businesses where workers spend more time yakking about all the bad management and terrible decision making going on around them than they do focusing on the job at hand.
These organizations may not talk much about building their culture, but they’re building it all the same, and the end result is a workplace culture that the very best people are simply happy to survive and eventually move along from.
Cultures don’t happen by accident
Yes, great cultures are the product of smart, caring, and concerned management, but dysfunctional organizations have cultures that are the product of just as much attention — even if it is the wrong kind.
Workplace culture is always a good topic to tackle, but even more so right now given the almost daily flow of negative stories from Uber on the company’s latest and greatest faux pas. In case you were sleeping, Fast Company did a nice job of summarizing it all like this:
“First, former engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post detailing the sexual harassment she experienced during her time at Uber, claiming that it was disregarded by human resources. Then, The New York Times wrote an in-depth exposé about working at Uber, citing over 30 current and former employees who preferred to stay anonymous. It detailed allegations similar to Fowler’s, along with other anecdotes about a permissive culture of debauchery and harassment.
Following that, a tape was leaked to Bloomberg that showed a cringeworthy shouting match between CEO Travis Kalanick and an Uber driver over cutting prices. A few days later another New York Times piece came out, this one detailing a technology it built – called Greyball – which was used to surreptitiously identify enforcement officials in cities where the Uber’s services were prohibited.”
There’s more, of course, but you get the point. For all the love that Uber has gotten for its disruptive, transformative business model that threatens to wipe out the world’s taxi and car service sector, it’s all built on one basic premise — the rules don’t apply to them.
Uber’s philosophy: We don’t need no stinkin’ rules
I know, I know; didn’t management guru Marcus Buckingham sell a lot of books that touted the notion of First, Break All the Rules? He did, but not in the way that Uber has .
If you drive a taxicab in a city like San Francisco or New York City, and you own your own cab, you probably paid a lot of money — in some cases, upwards of $1 million — for the taxi medallion the city issues that allows you to ply your trade.
There are a whole lot of rules and regulations you have to meet as part of the deal, and it’s hard work, but taxi cab owners agreed to the bargain, invested their money, and worked hard for a lot of years — until ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft came along.
The basic business philosophy of Uber and these new age ridesharing companies is pretty simple — we don’t need no stinkin’ badges (that is, taxi medallions). They start from the premise that they don’t need to comply with the local regulations, including the cost of taxi medallions and other such fees, and they dare cities and other municipalities to go after them when they ignore them.
As the Arizona Republic noted back in 2015,
“Uber’s business philosophy of seeking forgiveness rather than permission — of initiating operations while skirting local laws and regulations — has resulted in a worldwide backlash over safety issues, background checks and liability. … San Francisco-based Uber has been banned in parts of Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, the Netherlands, India and Thailand. It is grappling with lawsuits and protests in England, Germany and Spain. It faces increasing scrutiny from U.S. regulators, who accuse the company of illegal operations and of putting drivers on the road without regard to passenger safety.”
Lots of people believe that the taxi industry was ripe for something like Uber to come along, and that disrupting an old and creaky business model that most everybody hated was a good thing no matter how Uber did it.
Should we be surprised by Uber’s dysfunctional culture?
Maybe so, but tell that to the guy who laid out big money 10 years ago to invest in a New York City taxi medallion, a guy who tried to comply with the seemingly never-ending number of city rules on cabs and provide for his family, a guy who now finds his business in shambles.
As a 2014 headline in USA Today pointed out, Once a Sure Bet, Taxi Medallions Becoming Unsellable.
This is a long wind up to a short and simple point: Uber’s business model is based on the premise that they can do whatever they damn well please. Should we be surprised that the company’s workplace culture isn’t any different?
I don’t know if Uber ever truly planned for the dysfunctional culture they have today, but that’s how it goes when it comes to company culture. You usually get the one you deserve.
Culture flows from the organization’s core values, and if the core values espouse the notion that accepted, long-standing rules don’t apply and that you can do whatever you want, well, you’re going to get a workplace culture where everybody thinks the normal rules don’t apply, too.
And if you believe that an organization’s CEO should personify the company’s culture and values, well, look no further than Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who had an epic argument with an Uber driver that was captured on video and then broadcasted globally in The New York Times.
Companies take their lead from the CEO
No wonder Uber’s culture sucks.
CEO Kalanick — a guy who now admits that, “My job as your leader is to lead…and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away” — has built a culture that revels in how it doesn’t have to follow the rules.
I understand the appeal of that, and the need sometimes to go for broke and break bad rules, but we all need a certain number of rules, both in life and in business, to keep everything on track. Strong, positive workplace cultures are BASED on rules that clearly state what the organization is all about.
Southwest Airlines has been praised for its caring culture that starts with its workforce and then spreads to the customers. Southwest makes it clear just what the rules are in this list of company values, and these rules are what has made them into a huge business success AND a great place to work.
Southwest worked long and hard to build its culture, and it isn’t an accident that their culture is the secret to their success. Uber has also worked long and hard to break all the rules and be disruptive. Is it a big surprise that their culture is a mess as a result?
Well, he could have been talking about Uber, because to paraphrase Parcells, you are what your company culture says you are — whether you planned it that way or not.
John Hollon is an award-winning journalist and nationally recognized expert on leadership, talent management, and smart workforce practices. He currently is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media. He also was founding Editor of the popular talent management website TLNT.com, and before that, Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com.
John also held editing positions at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Orange County Register, and was top editor for Gannett at two statewide papers —Montana’s Great Falls Tribune and The Honolulu Advertiser. He also has deep experience in magazine and online publishing as editorial director at Fancy Publications, VP of Editorial at Pets.com, and Editor of the San Diego Business Journal.
In addition, John is an adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and a board member at the Kronos Workforce Institute. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine University’s Graziado School of Business & Management, and lives in Southern California.