Earlier this year, following months of headline-generating incidents of alleged sexual harassment and gender discrimination, legal disputes, and public protests, Uber underwent a change in leadership. As new people, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, stepped in to help the company investigate and overcome its internal issues, a string of exits—including those of managers, board members, global vice presidents, finance chiefs, and president Jeff Jones—culminated in founder Travis Kalanick’s resignation, and hiring a new CEO, ex-Expedia CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.
In terms of governance, the Uber of today hardly resembles its former self. But will a fresh leadership perspective be enough to transform the global transportation company’s entrenched organizational culture?
One of Uber’s recent hires, Frances X. Frei, thinks so. Frei is known for her work at the Harvard Business School, where she spearheaded a successful campaign to promote inclusion and diversity in the school’s culture and curriculum. In June, she took a leave of absence from HBS to serve as Uber’s Senior Vice President for Leadership and Strategy.
In her new role, Frei is responsible for improving all aspects of Uber’s corporate culture. Her job entails coaching executives, training managers, and engaging in other initiatives that set the tone for the organization and delineate acceptable workplace behavior. It’s an exhaustive range of assignments, yet Frei is optimistic about the company’s capacity to change and grow.
Shining a Light on Bad Behavior
Frei is a firm believer in redemption—a word she used multiple times during a Recode Decode interview. While many people, including Recode host Kara Swisher, believe changing these behaviors requires a hardline, zero-tolerance approach, Frei takes another view.
People can and do change, she maintains. But they need help doing so. “[A]ll of us need help with reflectors so that we’re aware what our behavior is doing. I think we’re hitting things with our tail all the time,” Frei told Swisher during the interview. Frei says the company needs to shine a light on bad behavior. “If I don’t have someone tell me then I do something else and something else and something else. I think we all need to know how we’re contributing in micro ways to a climate that’s making [bad behavior] permissive.”
According to Frei, most people would rather not encourage harassment and discrimination, but—without the right controls in place—we may unintentionally overlook wrongdoing and contribute to patterns of harmful behavior and bias. “Hitting things with our tail” is her phrase for what happens when we don’t see the unintended impact of our actions, especially when we’re focused on the objective ahead. To help the members of Uber’s leadership become more aware of their “tails,” Frei is working with the company to tie managers’ performance evaluations directly to their teams’ performance, reduce the number of direct reports each manager is in charge of, and create spaces for employees to share their experiences of harassment.
Frei’s efforts are yet to be tested, but her approach met with some skepticism from Swisher. The Recode founder, who has spent years covering Uber—and who has witnessed numerous occurrences of harassment and discrimination in Silicon Valley—spoke for the countless consumers and onlookers watching Uber with a skeptical eye, calling the company’s situation a “mess” and Frei’s optimism about the future “almost crazy.”
But What About Power?
Can Frei’s approach (along with the new leadership) effectively reverse Uber’s culture? Even more to the point, is Frei right to think that the misuse of power, discrimination, and harassment is a case of “hitting things with our tail,” of unintended goofs and errors? And, if so, can people change and learn from their errors?
Can people change? Yes. They can and they do, given the right ingredients: motivation, information, and support. The more difficult question concerns the culture of power misuse: Can people in power change? Can they become self-aware, notice right from wrong, and take the steps to change their behavior, and that of others?
Consider the typical start up founder-CEO, like Travis Kalanick. He sold his company (before Uber), Red Swoosh, for 19 million dollars at the age of 31. Young, awash in money, wheeling and dealing in the high pressure, high profile environment of Silicon Valley, Kalanick, like countless others is immersed in a culture that doesn’t just accept these negative behaviors but encourages them.
The old saying, “opportunity makes the thief” is nowhere truer than when it comes to power. Power comes bundled with the opportunity to abuse it: control over others, reduced oversight, institutional protection, access to resources—to name the most obvious. The context we operate in shapes our behavior and shapes our understanding of right and wrong, good and bad. When “everyone does it,” then, indeed, everyone does it. It is no longer a bad behavior when it’s the norm. And not all contexts are equal in their influence. The possibility for misusing power is highest in those contexts in which temptations are high, oversight is low, and the culture permits infractions. In other words, Silicon Valley.
What’s more are the psychological influences at play. Those in positions of power tend to drift further and further away from the “real world.” People treat them as demi-gods, and they come to believe (as their investors, employees, and friends may frequently tell them) that they can do anything. Having their success and status constantly affirmed and reflected back to them, they develop an overblown self-regard, excessive belief in their own ideas, and disregard for others’ feedback. It’s a perfect storm, ready to wreak havoc wherever it makes landfall.
Back to the question of Frei’s optimism about change. Can people change? Yes. But when it comes to power, Frei is right: we need to shine a powerful light on the behaviors, and on ourselves. Self-awareness and self-monitoring won’t do. Even if we strive to do good, our social context and self-interest tempts us towards misusing power, and protects us from feedback.
Power is a competency that can be developed, and companies in and outside of Silicon Valley need to consider it with the same seriousness they consider other leadership competencies. Dynamic companies expect their people to move quickly to get the job done, hit their targets, satisfy their shareholders, and outperform their competitors. The recent issues at Uber show us that leadership development cannot be sacrificed in pursuit of these goals. Harassment and discrimination undermine a company’s bottom line in the form of negative publicity, legal fees, attrition, low morale, and disengaged employees. They may not be evident at first, but they eventually will surface as the inevitable costs of pursuing progress without sufficient awareness of power behavior.