I was hired to fix Uber’s toxic culture - and I did. Here’s what I learned

Harvard’s Frances Frei reveals how you know when your values have gone rotten, and what you can do about it.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Jul 2020
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Food for thought

Corporate cultures are powerful, stubborn and rarely deliberate. They evolve over time as a consequence of thousands of small decisions and signals, and once formed they are exceptionally difficult to change. 

Yet if there are problems with your culture, don’t give up hope. Even the most corrosive of organisations can be rehabilitated with the right approach, as Uber’s experience shows.

In 2017, whistleblower Susan Fowler revealed the extent to which the ride sharing start-up had gone off track. Her now-famous blog painted a picture of Uber as a dysfunctional den of misogynistic bro culture. 

In response, founder Travis Kalanick began the process of rehabilitation - which would shortly afterwards result in his own stepping back from the firm - by hiring corporate culture troubleshooters Frances Frei and Anne Morriss to detoxify Uber’s culture, an experience they write about in their recent book Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You

Frei, who is a Harvard Business School professor of technology and operations management, shares some of the key lessons with Management Today.

What went wrong with the culture at Uber?

If you read Susan Fowler’s blog from a management lens, you can just see management breakdown after management breakdown after management breakdown. She did all the right things repeatedly and the managers did none of the right things repeatedly. It wasn’t just Susan’s experience. We gathered at least 1,000 complaints through an anonymous hotline, and the vast majority of them had the same thing in common.

There were 3,000 managers at Uber when I got there. Now, it could have been that there were 3,000 bad people, or 3,000 people who were just ill-equipped to manage. It turns out it was the latter, because they all got hired as individual contributors but became managers - and sometimes managers of managers - super quickly, without any formal training, because of Uber’s hyper-growth.

The second thing that went wrong was around Uber’s values. This was a very strong cultural organisation, and remember the first four letters of cultural are cult. Like a lot of start-ups, Uber had taken time to articulate its culture through a set of values, and everyone was guided and driven by these values, in part because they were largely in their 20s and this was the first place they’d ever worked. 

None of this is bad, except when you’ve got values which are really good and well-intentioned that become weaponised. And then things go horribly wrong, which was happening at Uber a lot.

What do you mean by weaponised?

It’s where you use a value for your own purposes. So, I’ve seen a lot of companies that had a value of ‘default to trust’, which was intended to mean ‘give people the benefit of the doubt’. But what happened is, if you were asking questions and I was your manager and getting impatient, I’d just say ‘default to trust dude’ to silence you. 

Where did you even start to try to fix this mess?

One of the first things we did after diagnosing the problem was put in training and education to address all the management and leadership gaps.

The first skill a manager needs is trust, so that’s where we started. Do people feel trust is free-flowing? Are people giving each other the benefit of the doubt? Are there obstacles to trust in the organisation? Uber clearly had some well-known ones. When I went in, for example, there were siloes that were at odds with each other [because of mistrust], all trying to do the same thing. 

So I taught them how to identify trust, how to diagnose mistrust for yourself and how to overcome it in a way that really accelerated throughout the organisation. To this day, they are the most eager learners I’ve ever come across. It was like water to a desert. We did a pilot and thought a few hundred people were going to show up. We got 6,000 - it was unbelievable.

Isn’t trust something that can only be established by actions, not words? How can you teach it?

It’s about understanding. You need to understand that the reason someone doesn’t trust you is you, not them. But you can overcome it. If you don’t trust me it must be one of these things I’m doing - it’s my obligation and it’s under my control. 

If you’re looking to change a culture, presumably it’s important to know what you want to change it to. How did you settle on a direction?

Once you’ve seen that a company’s values have been weaponised, even if they’re beautiful values, you have to let them go. And if you’re going to rewrite your values, it should be done by the entire company.

We came up with a process that should be done in less than 30 days, it’s a number one priority. The first step is to bring people into the room, in groups of 20 or 50 at a time. You have the existing cultural values on the table and pens on the table, and you ask people to spend the first 10 minutes just editing the document, putting stars next to things or crossing things out. 

Then you start talking about what emotionally struck them, and you capture that. You learn a tonne in the first or second meeting, but once you’ve had about 30 you’re learning very little that’s new. Then you start doing qualitative surveys, asking for example what an ideal culture looks like, what’s getting in the way of you accessing that culture, and of other people accessing it.

With all this data, you write the first draft of your new values, knowing that the purpose of a first draft is to be embarrassed by the second draft. Then you start spreading it around until you get convergence of opinions. You only want the senior team to be involved in the n-minus-two draft. 

I suspect the new values will get weaponised eventually too, so you’re probably going to need to update them again. You can’t pour liquid cement on them.

Did it work?

People had been very proud to work at Uber. If you saw pictures from two years before I arrived, they were all wearing an Uber T-shirt. No one was wearing an Uber T-shirt when I got there. After the Susan Fowler blog and other things, there was embarrassment and shame. People were telling me that if they got into an Uber car, they wouldn’t admit they were an Uber employee. A lot of them stopped going to parties, because the only thing people wanted to talk about was Uber. 

But we fixed these things. After nine months, you couldn’t imagine anything that Fowler wrote about happening again. You still couldn’t. 

Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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