Uber shows us the cost of a workplace without empathy

It was long held up as the poster child of technology disruption and the sharing economy. Uber’s innovative application broke into an age-old industry, giving the power back to the people and signaling the beginning of a new era! And then it wasn’t…

The constant flood of scandals, from surge pricing during disasters, ignoring reports of assaults and misconduct by drivers, sexual harassment, sabotaging competitors, tracking users, threatening reporters… all the way down to reports of the CEO throwing a coffee mug at an employee. All leading to the reluctant, but unsurprising, resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick amid shareholder pressure.

So, what went so wrong? For Uber the old saying holds: The apple rots from the inside. Uber shows us the struggle that many organisations face, the cultural battle between two ends of the most powerful spectrum in business: Empathy & Abundance vs Narcissism & Scarcity.

Uber has more of a culture of Narcissism & Scarcity. This is typified by self-centred, egotistical leadership. They cultivated a culture of leader superiority. Sexual harassment is a classic manifestation of a power-driven leadership culture. A business that is constantly defending, fighting accusations with threats, aggression and arrogance.

Despite all their success, the scourge of a scarcity mindset is also evident in Uber. They broke laws, sometimes unknowingly but often with clear intent, to fill their own pockets. Gouging customers and upsetting drivers with a clear “you need us more than we need you” mentality. Only they are wrong. The lifeblood of all organisations is their employee engagement and customer advocacy. When the scarcity mindset takes hold, everything is a kill or be killed battle. There is never enough to go around, so it is critical to extract everything you can for yourself.

So, what is the alternative?

A culture of empathy is embodied by a continual focus on servicing others. Being constantly curious to understand the ever changing needs of customers, employees, shareholders and the public, empowering better decision making and positive business outcomes. Ideo have been leaders in the design thinking revolution, helping hundreds of global companies to develop breakthrough products and services. The key to their success, empathy! At the heart of design thinking is discovering users’ unmet needs through careful observation. By understanding your stakeholders, focusing on them and not on yourself, companies can continue to engage and delight, avoiding the narcissistic implosions of the likes of Uber and others.

Abundance is seeing opportunities to give more. Finding ways to constantly help others with confidence that, creating joy for others and making the world a better place, will create greater prosperity for everyone. Fashion retailer, The Iconic, use this abundance mindset to delight their customers all the time. If you order clothes on their website, they offer three-hour delivery in major cities and same day delivery for most of their customers. If you don’t like some or all of your order for whatever reason, they’ll let you send them back. More than that, they will pay for the return shipping! While the scarcity-mongers will worry that customers will rip them off, they don’t fear evil customers. They treat their customers with generosity, and in return, they are growing revenue in a tough market via full priced sales to loyal customers.

While technology will continue to create opportunities for companies like Uber to emerge and disrupt markets rapidly, the secret to long term success comes through avoiding the temptation of narcissism and scarcity. Instead, great companies will remain humbly focused on others. They will treat customers, employees and shareholders with care and compassion. They will lead with empathy, generosity and an abundance mindset that supports their technology and disrupts in all the right ways.

Daniel Murray, Business Strategist, Empathic Consulting

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