Never underestimate the insightful reflections of workers, whether employees or contractors—especially when the company that pays them is behaving badly.
A crisis can jolt some people out of inattention and inertia to hear the signals through all the noise and take action. Whether the organization can fully benefit from all the individual action is another story.
Consider Uber Technologies Inc., the eight-year-old scandal-plagued, $68 billion start-up for car services. After complaints of sexual harassment and sexism, the company hired the law firm Covington & Burling to investigate the charges as well look into the company’s toxic culture and management structure.
Shortly after receiving the Covington report, the board of directors fired the CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick. The board also has publicly vowed to change the company’s overly aggressive culture that the pugnacious Kalanick molded in his image. This includes adjusting the 14 values, which include “toe-stepping” and “principled confrontation.”
Yet what are the chances Uber can succeed in transforming its culture?
It’s going to be a long, winding road ahead. “The culture is embedded over five years. It would take a while to change the entire mentality that this guy set,” as one Uber driver was quoted in Ruth Reader’s Fast Company post Uber Drivers Don’t Think Travis Kalanick’s Departure Will Improve Their Work Conditions.
On the plus side, Uber has acted quickly and decisively upon receiving the Covington report. The executives have announced a number of structural and programmatic changes, as described in this employee memo. The company had also fired about a dozen or so top executives before the CEO.
Uber also has announced 180 days of change for drivers, who have been raising different, yet also compelling concerns about working conditions.
Yet, changing culture is hard work, especially when an organization’s culture is quirky and tied to a magnetic co-founder.
Based on my work with culture change as well as two recent life-changing experiences, I share the Uber driver’s skepticism about being able to achieve and sustain fast fixes in the Uber culture. The fact Kalanick with his major financial interest in the company is remaining on the board will make it especially difficult.
Here’s why culture change is so hard. Culture becomes embedded in everything and way we think, behave and work, often not consciously. Culture is the ecosystem of organizations, communities and government, operating without our full awareness. Ecosystems are never stagnant, but they’re not necessarily fast changing either.
Take the regional cultures of North America. Shortly after the life-changing experience of moving to Charleston, South Carolina from the San Francisco Bay Area almost three-and-a-half years ago, one of my neuroscience professors recommended I read the book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. He said the book would help me better understand the Deep South.
The book was illuminating not only for appreciating my new home but also for being more aware of stark regional differences elsewhere and how they affect modern day business.
Actions that happened more than 300 years ago still influence how people behave today. For example, many native-born Southerners I’ve interacted with still show preferences for following orders rather than thinking critically, being polite rather than demonstrating proficiency; and being indifferent to formal education and learning. (And a Bless My Heart! to me for boldly calling out these behaviors, especially as a professional female. Who knows what backlash awaits me….)
Based on my applied neuroscience studies, which was another life-changing experience, I also know why it’s so hard to change behavior. We are wired for inertia and inattention. We’re more motivated to act when we feel our personal safety is under immediate threat, and even then we generally limit our actions to freeze, fight or flee.
To help an organization change its culture, it’s best to focus narrowly and tenaciously. Here’s what this means in practice, based on a client’s recent positive experience.
- Set goals for up to three changes you want to make over the next 12 to 18 months, which this client did. Also, identify the behaviors you want people to adopt. For example, this client chose the behaviors of “focus” and “execute.”
- Focus on one or two changes at a time, ideally one. Position the behaviors as new positive habits you want to build. For example, this client wanted employees to work on setting priorities around focus and execution.
- Encourage and everyone in the organization to build these new habits, which helps permeate the change and keep everyone more accountable. My client and I have worked with leaders and managers as well as persuasive employees first to get them on board and then to help role model and influence others. It also helps to ask leaders and peers to recognize and reward individuals when they see them doing the new behaviors you’re desiring. Talk privately to those who are sticking with the old ways of working, and if their behavior is disruptive, consider counter actions to ensure they’re not derailing the change.
With culture change, small and steady works better than big and aggressive.
If you want to achieve sustainable alterations, you need to shape the culture carefully with a scalpel rather than try to transform it with a machete.
How does this relate to your experiences with culture change?
Connect the dots plus dot the “i”s to be more intentional, inquisitive and inclusive
How well are you tapping into the skills and wisdom you need to lead in a BANI world?
All the old playbooks are out-of-date. Instead, you need to reach inside yourself, tap into your wisdom, and connect the dots for yourself and others.
To start, you can use these 5 tips to embrace your humanity and become a better leader.