Uber Success: Three Pieces of Advice for Leveraging Silicon Valley Culture

Written by Jason Patent, PhD, Director of the Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership

By now we’ve all heard that Travis Kalanick, Uber’s embattled CEO, is taking a leave of absence. We don’t know when and if he’ll be back; we do know that Uber needs to fundamentally change its approach to inclusion if it wants to succeed in the long run.

We have also seen recommendations from many quarters about what Uber needs to do in order to succeed in its inclusion efforts — such as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s advice that Uber require its senior executives to undertake diversity and inclusion training, as well as create a new role of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, reporting directly to the CEO or COO (among several other recommendations).

By themselves the recommendations are helpful, but incomplete. There’s so much more to creating a truly inclusive environment. The good news is that Silicon Valley already has the ingredients for success. But first Uber — and countless other companies in Silicon Valley and beyond — have to wrestle with some difficult truths.

#1: True inclusion requires honesty

First the bad news: The honesty we need for effective inclusion is a type of honesty which U.S. culture hasn’t properly introduced us to. The success stories we grow up hearing are tales of self-reliance and hard work — and little else. They ignore social context and positionality, and the truth that hard work alone is often not enough. It was once said of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush that “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” The same could be said of many in our society who, while they have indeed worked hard, taken risks, and otherwise fulfilled the role of the hero in the classic American success story, also happen to belong to social categories for whom success comes more easily than it does for others.

Now for the good news: Honesty is a highly touted value in many corporate cultures, and especially in Silicon Valley, where effective innovation is seen as impossible without honesty. Leaders simply need the courage and the objectivity to be honest first and last with themselves about all of the factors that have contributed to their success, and to the success and struggles of others. This might feel threatening at first, but like any skill it gets easier with time and practice, as threat transforms into a kind of freedom: it can be deeply liberating to be honest and real, and to listen openly to others’ lived experience. How? By creating a shared human context for our trials and triumphs, which brings us together, and makes us more effective in our work.

#2: True inclusion requires a willingness to fail and a commitment to learn

The bad news: Our culture hasn’t equipped us with helpful ways of thinking and talking about difference. Instead, we talk about “types” of people: So-and-So “is a racist,” “is a sexist,” and so on. It’s a scientific fact that the human brain is hard-wired to see difference as a threat; therefore, negative stereotyping is built into our shared humanity. We all contain racism, sexism, and you-name-your-ism inside our DNA. We will fail again and again in our efforts to include. The real question is: How will we learn and move forward?

The good news: The Silicon Valley dictum to “fail fast” is our best friend. It’s helpful to know that we will fail frequently in our efforts to include. So what? Let’s learn from each failure, get better and move on…to the next failure and learning opportunity.

#3: True inclusion requires us to give up certainty

The bad news: Nobody really knows what a “truly inclusive” environment looks like, or how we will know when we have arrived. That’s probably because there is no “arrival”: humans will always be works in progress. Recent popularizations of psychological research — such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind — have drilled it home that we are at the mercy of our moment-to-moment unconscious thought processes, and that these thought processes often put us at odds with our fellow humans: we judge without evidence, decide we’re better, and reaffirm our stories of our own superiority (both as individuals and as members of groups).

The good news: Silicon Valley knows that certainty is the enemy of innovation and progress, and that freeing ourselves from certainty can be immensely empowering.

And we also know that we can get better. Humans have consciousness and the ability to self-reflect. We are absolutely capable of honestly evaluating our own behavior (especially with the help of others), seeing where we fall short, and changing our behavior for the better.

Leaders matter

Not only do leaders have outsized authority in making organizational decisions, but outsized influence as role models, and as tone-setters of organizational culture. “Core values” are only meaningful if they are lived by leaders; otherwise they are hollow.

Make no mistake: It takes courage and steadfastness to resist the tide of the prevailing cultures that will continue to push leaders to ignore, dismiss, gloss over, pretend, and so on. These are powerful cultural forces with centuries of history behind them.

What I hope I’ve shown here is that leaders, especially Silicon Valley leaders, have existing cultural resources at their disposal for countering this history: valuing of honesty, appreciation of failure, and a willingness to let go of certainty.

Let’s take all the brilliance of Silicon Valley and apply it to ourselves: as leaders, as organizations, and most importantly as human beings. Who knows what we’ll discover?