Uber's Woes Teach Us the Cost of a Work Culture Without Empathy
Cutthroat culture hurts the loyalty necessary to improve productivity and grow profitably.
Uber’s internal investigation regarding the work culture at the rideshare firm has resulted in at least 20 firings so far, and more fallout is expected in the coming weeks. With accusations of harassment, inappropriate advances and anger management issues, Uber has become the focus of a larger discussion on the importance of a healthier work environment.
The rideshare wonder is one of the unicorns of the tech market, literally doubling their headcount inside of the last year. With their tight focus on growth, common human decency got thrown out the window. Fast growth and intense competition are obviously no excuse for mistreating employees, and the firings serve as a wake up call to the industry. Aside from the obvious problem with illegal behavior at work, a negative culture hurts loyalty, productivity and profitably.
Travis Kalanick is surely not the only CEO to have created an overly chauvinistic or rudely competitive culture. This culture pervades offices everywhere. As Sheryl Sandberg notes in her timely book, Option B, people should be able to bring their “whole selves” to work, but all too often people are punished for being anything other than a hard-driving robot.
Uber’s plight hit me as personally ironic. I'm a native New Yorker, which means I’ve fostered a tough outer shell. Having experienced my share of bad bosses throughout my career, I chose to hide any empathetic tendencies I had inside. If I let my softer side show, I thought I might be perceived as weak. Over time, however, through personal experience, I have come to embrace the power of empathy. When I met my husband, I saw in big and small ways how valuable it is to focus on empathetic interactions. When I am angry about an over-booked flight, he reminds me that the desk attendant is stressed out too, leading to a more positive outcome. By learning from these everyday interactions, I’ve been able to apply this approach in more consequential situations. These days, I often say, I'm more human than I am business. For example, we’ve made our office an “ego free” zone, which levels the playing field for junior staffers. No one is above doing anything, and we’re all held to the same standards, keeping priviledge or entitlement in check.
But here’s the rub: The industry hasn’t evolved enough to accept empathetic leaders. I often fear that someone is going to call me out and say that my empathy will make me unmarketable -- a softer, less capable leader. This is the pressure we are under. We second guess our emotional intelligence and feel the need to question our own human decency. This tendency is bad for business, and it will only get worse. Younger generations are starting to demand better treatment at work. Better treatment leads to better results.
In medicine, studies have shown that using emotional intelligence and empathy actually increase doctor performance, speed up doctor’s visits and help patients heal faster. The same is true in business. Healthcare costs, turnover and a general lack of interest are all much likelier to exist within negative work cultures. For leaders in digital, part of the problem is a generational difference in philosophy -- a gap that must be bridged. Millennials are less focused on monetary success and are more likely to value relationships over material possessions. For long-term growth, creating environments where millennials can thrive is a no-brainer.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Managers have to do things people don’t like, like terminating an employee or eliminating a role because it’s no longer necessary to support the business strategy. While managers have been on the receiving end of those tough situations, too much empathy might stop them from making the right decision. Other studies show that people who practice too much empathy at work, like non-profit workers or caregivers, find themselves depleted, exhausted and even unfairly biased as a result. There are more sustainable ways to incorporate empathy into a work environment.
The Marines are known for tight-knight bonds that are formed in small ways. For example, the most junior in rank eat first. This doesn’t undermine rank, in fact, it engenders respect.
For millennials, that trust might come in the form of flexible work policies or opportunities to deliver two-way feedback, like regular 360 degree reviews. Making people feel heard and feel empowered builds trust without eroding responsibility or order.
One of the best examples of this that I’ve seen at work is when information is required to come directly from the source, not from the manager or the manager’s manager. If a junior analyst spotted an issue, they get to send the email to the executive. Not only does she get the credit for the insight, she bears the responsibility of an explanation and next steps. This way, people build genuine trust, and faces are put together with names, junior and senior.
Managing a team, having a deadline to hit, working to achieve a revenue goal. We’re all under a lot of pressure to prove ourselves. Add the media scrutiny and Silicon Valley and Wall Street growth expectations, and our digital market is a virtual powder keg of stress and bad, last-minute decisions. We’ve all felt the need to do things to hit these goals: overlooking strategic work in pursuit of a quick win, releasing a product before it’s really ready, running a campaign as fast as possible without taking performance metrics into consideration.
When an issue arises at work that’s tethered to extreme outcomes, and I hear fire-drill comments that suggest the business is at extreme risk (when in actuality, it’s not), I sometimes wonder what would happen if I got on board and took a more aggressive approach. Would we grow a little faster in the short term or get temporarily ahead from the short cuts? These knee-jerk decisions often come with consequences -- some less measureable than profit -- like crushing staff morale or damaging your reputation as an even-keeled leader.
Empathy is not about being best friends, or being too soft to make tough decisions. Empathy is not about leading with emotion. It’s about having the mindfulness to recognize how your decisions as a leader impact others. It’s about making sure everyone on the team is welcome to contribute and taking that responsibility seriously. Empathy allows us to give people strength under pressure. Empathy drives loyalty and a healthy work environment. Next time I question myself on my own empathy, I’ll remember the balance of trust I’m trying to achieve and perhaps even give myself a little bit more empathy, too.