The culture scandal at Uber: Did subjectivity play a role?

The scandal at Uber over ignored sexual harassment allegations has turned the spotlight on company culture. With all of the recent energy around that topic, there is not much being said about the roots of a company culture. But ignoring the roots of culture is dangerous.

What is at the root of a culture? Simply put, a lot of humans who are going to interpret rules, expectations and policies. Until the roots are addressed, any action to establish or change a company’s culture will only have a temporary effect.

Of course, it’s essential that strong leadership send a clear, strong message about the culture. Equally as essential is to have policies, practices and processes in place that are objective–not open to interpretation. Subjective policies, practices and processes will counteract all of the constructive work of the leadership and the message.

Where is the danger?

Fuzzy language, processes and expectations are the danger, and they hide in plain sight. “Fuzzy” can refer to subjective language that is open to interpretation. That is where the few bad apples who want to break the rules will hide.

Like Uber, a financial services company in the southwest U.S. had to recover from its first sexual harassment scandal and had to recover quickly. Until that point, it had been a “boys’ club” culture in which the stock phrases prohibiting sexual harassment had been circulated, but the policies were fuzzy, with plenty of room to protect the cronies who were used to getting around the rules.

Phrases such as “will not be tolerated,” “unwelcome conduct,” “an offensive environment,” are examples of fuzzy language. This is where the people who might cause trouble begin to rationalize their actions and hide behind the interpretations.

Fuzzy language in policies, processes and consequences is dangerous. If something is open to interpretation, there are grounds for conflict.

What is the remedy?

Fuzzy language can be squeezed out of policies, processes and consequences through a relatively simple process taught by human performance guru Robert Mager, Ph. D. He calls it “Goal Analysis,” but he describes it as “defuzzifying fuzzies.”

Once a fuzzy is discovered, according to Mager, it must be translated to observable performances. In conversation, it would sound something like this:

Boss: There will be no unwelcome conduct!

Defuzzifier: Well said, boss. When you observe “unwelcome conduct” [or whatever the fuzzy is] what actions are you observing?

Boss: Well, no one should tell jokes that the listeners consider to be inappropriate for the workplace.

Defuzzifier: Fair enough. What else?

Boss: There should be no pictures on display that people consider to be sexually oriented.

Defuzzifier: Got it. What else?

The “what elses” continue until the boss defines the list of observable performances that describe her fuzzy of “unwelcome conduct.”

The work processes that must be reviewed are all of those that support the message. In our sexual harassment example, there are processes for:

  •   Educating people on the subject.
  •   Reporting violations.
  •   Addressing reports of violations.
  •   Taking disciplinary actions.
  •   Reviewing and revising policies.

Each process is made up of steps taken in order to achieve the intended outcome. The steps must be reviewed to ensure there are no gaps in the process and that the language is free of fuzzies.

In the financial services company example, this was the process that addressed the fuzzies in the policies and communications dealing with sexual harassment. That complemented the leadership’s strong message of the cultural “clarification.” With the fuzzies translated into observable performances, there were no places left to hide.

A simple process does not mean the conversation or the efforts to review and revise work processes to rid them of subjectivity are easy. It takes a lot of effort, but the process is not complex.

What is the danger of other cultural fuzzies?

Subjectivity cannot be allowed in the language, policies and practices of critical cultural components of an organization. Sexual harassment is an obvious example, but the dangers of fuzzy language also applies to cultural descriptions, such as “high-performance culture,” “a great place to work,” or “an inclusive culture.”

The problem with fuzzies is that they put bosses in the tenuous position of being the judges. Yes, you want bosses to have good judgment, but you don’t want work processes to cause them to interpret subjective guidance on what should be done, how it should be done, and how it should be evaluated. That opens each situation to conflict, which is a tremendous obstacle to performance in the workplace.

When you drill down to the root of most workplace conflict, you will find the disagreement is over a work process that is subjective, or left open to interpretation. Even a good boss will find it difficult to be good when they are trying to defend subjective work processes and systems. As the eminent scholar W. Edwards Deming put it, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

Subjectivity in work processes and systems is the enemy of efforts to establish or to change company cultures and are the root of almost all evil in the workplace.

Written by Rex Conner for CW Magazine.