The role of people science in managing culture
Uber and their HR/People team are receiving a lot of criticism after a former engineer, Susan Fowler, recounted her experience working at Uber. The management team and culture is described as hostile, divisive, competitive to the point of sabotage, with everyone only concerned with their own success and undermining others to make themselves look better. Her story includes sexual harassment, threats of retaliation for reporting it, discrimination and a massive exodus of women on her team. She estimates that during her time at Uber her team of 150 engineers went from 25% women to 3%.
While the management team comes off badly, the HR team looks even worse. The HR team is portrayed as disorganized, incompetent, deceitful, and even threatening. Fowler’s account includes a plethora of people issues and reads like a list of don’ts for HR/people teams. The New York Times Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture followed, interviewing over 30 current and former Uber employees, echoing Fowler’s account. Uber has responded quickly with internal meetings and hiring former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate, but many question the motivates of Uber’s response and frustrated employees continue to vent across social media channels. What lessons can organizations learn from Uber? How can you use people science to ensure your company doesn’t become the next culture exposé?
The root of toxic cultures
The underlying mechanisms of culture are complex and numerous. Culture is built overtime as unwritten social norms which are established through the actual values and behaviors of employees. Those that receive positive reinforcement strengthen and become woven into the cultural fabric. Similarly, if divisive or predatory behaviors are tolerated without negative consequences, these may also become ingrained in the culture as acceptable.
People with higher status or influence have a disproportionate impact on culture, as others will look to them as role models and emulate their values and behaviors. Overtime, values and behaviors solidify into a core culture and become very difficult to change. Evolutionary psychology has identified several unconscious motivations and biases that left unchecked can quickly lead to aggressively competitive and discriminatory behaviors. The underlying concept of status- seeking, is the driving mechanism. Status-seeking behaviors have evolved, often unconsciously, as status was important for survival. If a culture overly emphases status-seeking behaviors, without prosocial, collaborative, and altruistic behaviors, an unbalanced, highly-aggressive culture emerge, like that described at Uber.
Signs of toxicity
Every organization wants to attract, engage and retain high performers and improve overall performance. One of the primary problems people scientists model is how to improve performance. Uber is known as a performance driven organization with a culture of ‘top talent, high standards.’ Building a culture of high performance is not without risks as unguarded it can become a culture of individual success at any cost. Fowler describes ‘a game-of-thrones political war’ with managers deliberately withholding critical information and trying to sabotage the careers of others to get ahead. As people scientists, we can test for toxic high performance by using pulse surveys to monitor engagement and culture, exploring the relationship between individual and team performance, leverage 360s feedback, include questions on collaboration and respect, and analyze internal mobility patterns.
Diversity and inclusion
Fowler’s account includes sexual harassment, discrimination, blatant exclusion, and a significant decline in gender diversity. Her account represents an extreme case that should be easy for any HR/people team to identify, even without the assistance of a people scientist. Uber has claimed their analysis of attrition data does not support Fowler’s observations. However, a lack of attrition does not necessity disprove these claims. People may tolerate such behaviors because rewards such as stock options and vesting schedules can make leaving extremely difficult, especially in startups. Diversity and inclusion issues are often subtle, and there may not be evidence of numerous grievances or serious increases in attrition. People science can help identify these issues by reviewing key people metrics such as performance, promotion, salary, high-performance selection, along with other parameters such as attrition, hiring, and engagement. Including questions regarding inclusion and respect on employee surveys is another great way to monitor and test for these types of issues.
People scientists, armed with the right data, and understanding the science behind culture, can be an organization’s first line of defense against toxic cultures. However, they need to be empowered and supported by senior executives who value and recognize the importance of a positive, diverse, and inclusive culture. Senior executives are role models, and their values and behaviors are the foundation of an organization’s culture. If toxic, divisive, and predatory behavior is ignored, it will become embedded in the culture and an accepted practice, even if performance is high.