Wharton psychologist says Uber’s culture is the perfect example of a toxic Silicon Valley myth

Travis kalanick
‘Fierceness’ won’t get you far. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick pictured. Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Uber’s bad first half of 2017 culminated in late June with the resignation of CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick.

It came after a string of scandals including allegations of rampant sexual harassment and gender discrimination, wavering confidence in Kalanick’s ability to lead, legal violations, and alleged theft of intellectual property — all set in a context of an infamous “bro culture.”

Before the dominoes began falling, Uber executives proudly flaunted the massive ride-sharing company’s culture of “fierceness,” where top employees are invigorated with “superpumpedness.” Kalanick embraced a reputation that was essentially a frat bro hero of an Ayn Rand novel.

In the latest episode of his podcast “Masters of Scale,” LinkedIn chairman and Greylock Partners investor Reid Hoffman used Uber as an example of a “toxic” culture that could no longer be contained when the company grew large and powerful. He sought insight from his friend Adam Grant, a Wharton psychologist who is the bestselling author of “Give and Take” and coauthor with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg of “Option B.”

Grant said he sees the situation at Uber to be the result of a deeply rooted myth pervasive in Silicon Valley.

“I often think about people on a spectrum of ‘Givers’ and ‘Takers,’” Grant said, referring to those who strive to move through the world as part of the network versus those who think of themselves as single-man armies.

Grant explained:

“And there’s this belief in Silicon Valley that if you want to be disruptive, you want to be a CEO who drives major innovation and change, then you have to be a Taker. And you look at Uber and you think well, they had to break all these rules, they had to fight with taxi companies, they had to sidestep laws of different states and countries — you need a bunch of takers who are just willing to go in and take what they feel they deserve and what is ultimately right for their business.

“And the data don’t support that theory at all. It’s this giant myth. So what you really want if you want to drive disruption is you want disagreeable Givers. The people who enjoy conflict, who like to challenge the status quo and rock the boat, but are motivated to do that in service of helping other people be successful or achieving a meaningful organizational goal.”

Both Hoffman and Grant agreed that all it takes is a few people to corrupt an entire large company.

“It’s never too early to think about the culture that you’re shaping, and it’s a lot easier to shape culture through who you let in the door than trying to radically change people’s behaviours,” Grant said.

You can listen to the full episode below or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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