Sorry Uber, That's Not How Culture Works


Fred Perrotta

I heard about Uber's new cultural norms from a series of Sarah Lacy tweets.

What Uber Got Wrong

New Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi's post is a nice read but ignores how culture is formed and changed. His cultural norms document is meant to placate employees and investors. "Everything is fine. Nothing to see here."

This is the approach we’ve taken with our new cultural values, which we announced to employees today.

Your company culture doesn't change because you hand down a list of its new values. Twelve thousand employees with eight years of history at the company and billions of dollars at stake do not change their behavior because of a LinkedIn post.

Not how culture works:
Choose values -> Tell company what its values are -> people act accordingly

How culture works:
People act -> Culture develops -> Codify existing behaviors as values

I feel strongly that culture needs to be written from the bottom up. A culture that’s pushed from the top down doesn’t work, because people don’t believe in it. So instead of penning new values in a closed room, we asked our employees for their ideas.

Here, Khosrowshahi is right. You can't hand down your values to your team. But he misses the problem. The problem is that your values aren't what sounds good in a blog post or what an employee suggested would be a good value to have. Your values are how the company operates every day. Your values are how you make hard choices.

Your values are what you live, not what you write.

Changing the values document isn't enough. You must change how you act. But, people won't change how they act because a blog post told them their new values. People act based on how they're inventivized, who is getting rewarded for what behaviors, and how everyone around them acts.

If you codify something as a value, but your actions don't back it up, it's not a value.

The Rockefeller Habits has a good check for this. At your next team meeting, ask everyone to name your values and to share a story about when the team lived its values. Don't have a story to back it up? Then you aren't living up to your values.

The Same People Doing the Same Things Can't Change the Culture

We ensure people of diverse backgrounds feel welcome.

Less than two weeks before this post was published Uber was sued for sexual and racial discrimination. Less than six months earlier, 20 employees were fired and 31 placed into counseling for sexual harrassment.

These and more controversies led to founder Travis Kalanick being replaced by Khosrowshahi as CEO. Problem solved, right? No. Kalanick is still Khosrowshahi's "boss" and working to preserve his own power on Uber's board. Even if Khosrowshahi does everything right, Kalanick's ego and the board's unwillingness to oust him, will prevent real change at the company.

Uber will still probably be wildly successful. This is not "Uber is doomed" punditry. The point, for new companies or ones first codifying their values, is to understand how culture is formed and changed.

Without making significant changes to who is on the team, how the team is incentivized, and what behaviors are dis/allowed, you cannot change the culture.

How You Can Do Better Than Uber

The best article on core values is Building Your Company's Vision by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras for Harvard Business Review. You have to pay to read the full text, but it's worth it.

I'll summarize the article with a lightly edited quote from my post on Simon Sinek's talk and book Start With Why.

"The important takeaway from Collins’ article is that your values should be unique to your company and should be a part of your company’s DNA. Your values should be so embedded into your operations that you would stick with them even if they became a detriment to your business.

Generic platitudes do not make good values. If every company would agree with your methods, they aren’t your methods. Your values should make at least some other companies think, “That would never work here…”

If your values excite you but make other companies nervous, you’re on the right track."

At Tortuga, the most obvious value that is crucial to us but seems crazy to others is working remotely. Every system at Tortuga is built for remote work. We belive in remote work even though it makes physical product design and manufacturing more harder and slower.

Writing your core values should not be a matter of brainstorming them. You should be choosing from your existing behaviors, not imagining ideal ones. If they aren't obvious, they probably aren't your values.

Which behaviors do you want to reinforce? Which will you incentivize? Which will you punish? Which will you refer back to when forced to make a hard decision?

In difficult times, you should be doubling down on your values, not breaking them for expediency. You should be using your values as a reminder of how to make that difficult decision. If you only live up to your values when things are going well, those aren't your real values.

If the new list were actually Uber's values all along, they wouldn't be in this position.