Uber, Corporate Culture, & Productivity
You Can have your Cake and Eat it Too!
The problems at Uber have been all over the news. A recent article from Wharton highlights some of the issues at Uber and many other companies. I’m not talking about sexual harassment, but rather, like Uber, the influence top management has on the organization’s culture.
In the article, John Paul MacDuffie, noted management professor at Wharton stated that, “The founders always have a huge influence on the company…”, highlighting Travis Kalanick at Uber. University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business professor, Cindy Schipani’s quote is memorable: “In the end, any report is only as good as the paper it is written on, unless the players in the game take it seriously.” Professor Schipani further noted, “Unless they get a leader with strong integrity who believes in wanting to change the culture, it’s not going to make a difference.”
Senior management, whether overtly or covertly, whether knowingly or unknowingly, creates and maintains the organizational culture that lies beneath. It’s a side-effect of any leadership position. When I was young, my parents frequently told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Well, which one of those options do you think I manifested in later life? Was it what I saw day-in and day-out from people I loved and respected, or the infrequent suggestion that there might be a different way? Fortunately for me, my parents demonstrated integrity, honesty, and hard work; now so do I. I might have picked up a few bad habits from them, but I was lucky to have great role models.
This is certainly not the first time we’ve seen senior-management-generated cultural issues. If you’re old enough, you might recall the Congressional hearings to bail out GM during the 2008 recession. You may also recall the “private jet” incident. After flying to Washington in their private luxury jets to beg Congress to bail them out, GM executives claimed that their problems were not management’s fault, but rather the economy’s. Management claimed they were doing all the right things (despite the consistent two-decade long erosion of their market share to Toyota). I’m sure H. Ross Perot had a good laugh. Obama’s team refused to bail out GM during the 2008 recession unless they got a new CEO. GM burned through three CEOs in less than a year during that time.
Again, my focus is not sexual harassment, or ethics, or even self-indulged executives embroiled in their own egos. My focus is productivity, but the same issues apply. Senior management establishes the productivity culture whether they know it or not. While there has been substantial research regarding ethical and moral cultures, there has been remarkably little work on culture as it relates to productivity.
The effect senior management has on culture goes beyond simply mimicking their behaviors. When we began our research, we had to go back to Maslow (Maslow, 1943) and McGregor. As McGregor put it in his classic work (McGregor, 1957), “… unless man is in a dependent relationship where he fears arbitrary deprivation, he does not demand security… but when he feels threatened or dependent, his greatest need is for guarantees, for protection, for security.” More simply put, when an employee feels unsure about management’s decisions (what McGregor called arbitrary management) or threatened by management, they seek security and self-protection (what McGregor called Theory-X people). However, if employees understand management’s decisions and are free from punitive actions, they climb higher in Maslow’s hierarchy (Maslow, 1943), are willing to take risks, and support the organization (Theory-Y people).
Personally, I find it sad that most teachings of McGregor miss the entire point of his work. McGregor argued that management creates either Theory-X people or Theory-Y people by their behaviors, not simply that these two types of people exist.
When my colleagues and I developed the Key Success Parameters (KSPs), we ignored ethics and morals. We focused on projects. Our goal was to determine the characteristics of sustainable, highly-productive project team cultures. We weren’t surprised, however, that in the end, sustainable, highly-productive cultures are also ethical and moral. Moreover, we discovered that the two are inseparable.
We discovered that sustainability is the key. Lying, cheating, and stealing may get you rich fast, but it won’t sustain (and will likely land you in jail). There also has to be a work-life balance, or it won’t sustain.
Sustainable productivity demands working with colleagues collaboratively with open communication. Sustainable productivity demands responsibility and accountability, making a commitment to do the job right and accurately reporting on its progress. Sustainable productivity demands clear definition… not just for that task, but also for roles and responsibilities. And sustainable productivity demands focusing on the customer’s deliverables. Those of you familiar with our KSPs will recognized these characteristics as the first four of our list of seven.
But the cultural change has to start at the top. How many of you experienced what I call, “the remedy du jour”… the new “thing” that management brings in to solve some problem, only to have it fade away returning the team(s) back to mediocrity. It wasn’t necessarily the “thing’s” fault that it didn’t work. Try to implement a change, but keep the same old culture, same old people, same old problems, and same old management, and you’ll get the same old results.
The good news for middle management is the definition of “top”. Our research consistently suggests that a strong leader… anywhere in the organization… can affect cultural change underneath. Examples of organizations with different cultures across and within divisions are numerous. Personally, I’ve been successful at creating strong cultures as small as a project team and as large as the largest division of a multi-billion dollar, multi-national organization. In one extreme case, I managed a project team in an organization with a horrible, politically-driven culture. I kept my head down, created the culture I wanted for the team and we produced for our clients… making me (and my team) virtually untouchable. One of our long-term clients is a multi-divisional company where each division has its own culture and each is successful in its own right.
Start at the top (wherever you define “the top”), create a sustainable, high-productivity culture, and you will jump ahead of your competition. You will deliver higher-quality products and you will deliver them faster. You will respond to customers’ needs quickly and generate loyalty. You will not only gain a leadership position in the marketplace, you will stay there! Ohhhh, by the way, you’ll also create a moral and ethical culture.
In this case, and despite my father’s teachings, you can have your cake and eat it too.
May all your projects be successful!
Michael B Bender, The Value Strategist
President, KSP Partnership
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 40(4), 370-396.
McGregor, D. (1957). The human side of enterprise. The Management Review, 46(11), 22-28.