What can UK businesses learn from the Uber debacle?

31 Jul 2017 By Patrick Woodman

Patrick Woodman examines the dangers of toxic working cultures, and what employers can do to build trust between management and staff

Without trust, a business cannot function; the unceremonious resignation of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, has made this clear. Uber’s management track record has led to what employees are calling a toxic workplace culture, and, rightly, a spotlight is now being shone on the management of the organisation. Kalanick might have run a company, but he failed to lead it the way many employees wanted.

Uber’s case reminds us that too many organisations are still mired in toxic working cultures. The uniting factor of a toxic workplace is one that is stuck in a cycle of mistrust between management and employees, often because of a lack of transparency in the business. Without trust, management and employees can’t work together and the company will suffer as a result.

Early identification of the issues is extremely important, but it is only half the battle. We must then address what needs to be done to solve the problem.

The answer lies in building trust with the workforce. This is vital to business success. Board directors and managers must be accountable not just to shareholders, but their employees as well. Like any culture change, getting it right won’t happen overnight. There are gradual steps managers, with HR support, can take to improve their working environment. According to the Chartered Management Institute’s Middle Manager Lifeline research, the first step is open and honest communication with employees. Openness and transparency will go a long way to engage staff in the future of the business, and will make them feel valued. Whether it be regular company meetings, internal updates or face-to-face meetings with middle management who cascade the information, leaders and HR directors must establish clear-cut communication methods with employees to keep them informed of business activities.

Consistency is also key. A lack of consistency can lead to feelings of vulnerability – nothing is worse than that feeling of being ‘kept in the dark’. If employees feel the information being cascaded is accurate and timely, they are more likely to trust what they are being told, which creates a healthier working environment.

We can take solace in the positive steps that are being made to boost transparency and trust in UK businesses. For example, the recent Glassdoor Employees’ Choice Awards does an excellent job in rewarding CEOs based on what their staff think about them. These are valued awards, precisely because they are voted for by employees themselves based on criteria like trust, openness and vision. With high-profile CEOs included in the rankings, such as Bromford’s Philippa Jones and Google’s Sundar Pichai, the awards provide excellent motivation for other business leaders to follow suit.

What is important is to start the journey. The risk of not doing so is too great, as I am sure Kalanick would attest. His focus on growth over culture has ultimately cost him his investors’ support and his role at the head of a company he professes to love.

Sadly, a toxic culture is not unique to Uber. Let’s hope UK businesses learn from this. There’s never been a more important time to build the bridge between leadership and middle management, and with further uncertainty on the horizon we must work together to create the right environment for the UK economy to succeed. Companies are built on their people, and creating a culture of trust and transparency is essential to long-term success.

Patrick Woodman is head of research and advocacy at the Chartered Management Institute

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