Sh*t Bad Leaders Say: That Uber CEO vs. Driver Fight

Uber’s been having a rough past few weeks. Amid allegations of sexual harassment by several of Uber’s female employees, the company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, was caught on tape last week in a heated argument with one of his drivers about fare reductions. Though not related to the harassment claims, this video shows just a peek into Kalanick’s leadership style and the kind of culture he created at Uber – it doesn’t look very good. 

Kalanick and two…um…companions…were catching a ride with Fawzi Kamel, who was (and presumably still is) employed as a driver with the ride-sharing company. Before exiting the car, Kamel shook Kalanick’s hand and took the opportunity to raise his concerns about the CEO’s decision to cut the rates passengers pay to use Uber’s upmarket Black service, which was Kamel’s primary source of income. Kalanick immediately became defensive and vehemently denied that the rates were unfair by dismissing Kamel’s concerns as “bullshit”. He parted by bestowing some words of wisdom to his driver: “You know what? Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on someone else.” After the video went viral, Kalanick issued a statement apologizing to Uber’s employees, including Kamel, and said that he needed some help being a better leader.

Well, based on the video evidence, it’s safe to say Travis Kalanick behaved like a total asshole. That’s actually a technical term. We organizational development practitioners reserve ‘asshole’ to describe those particularly toxic managers who destroy morale and wreck engagement within their organizations. What makes Kalalick’s assholery so egregious in this situation? Why do managers cut from the same cloth as Kalanick realize too late that their leadership skills are sorely lacking? I believe there are two very important causes:

Lack of Empathy

When Mr. Kamel broached the topic of pay cuts with his CEO, he was clearly trying to express the financial pain he felt as a result. Instead of trying to empathize, Kalanick doubled down on his decision to reduce rates. He defended the reduction as purely a business decision that was necessary for the company to stay competitive. What he failed to understand was how that decision negatively affected his drivers. Leaders like Kalanick view employees as little more than costs that eat away at the company’s bottom line. They show no empathy for employees’ needs and do not recognize that they must do so unless it somehow correlates to higher profits. The irony is that treating employees in such a way is detrimental to business.

Arrogance

Leaders who believe that they are always right will invariably feel affronted by employees having the audacity to question their decisions. Kalanick’s highly charged reaction to Kamel illustrated his mindset that the boss is always right and employees should stay in their own lane. The sense of power and control that many managers feel when they assume a leadership position gives them a false sense of superiority. Unfortunately, an arrogant leadership attitude does nothing to inspire and engage employees who want to share their ideas for how to improve the organization. At best, this causes innovation atrophy. At worst, it fosters a culture of fear that eventually implodes from some corporate scandal. Just look at what happened to Wells Fargo.

Here’s how Kalanick (or any leader in this kind of situation) should have handled it:

First things first – listen! Keep your mouth shut and just listen! Kalanick wasn’t listening to understand, he was (semi)listening to react. He wasn’t interested in hearing about his driver’s concerns. All he wanted to do was keep his ego in tact by defending his position as chief decision maker and master of the Uber universe. But when an employee expresses a grievance, you need to make an effort to hear when he is trying to say. Then repeat back what you understand to be the employee’s concern so he knows you’ve heard him. That’s Leadership Communication 101, for crying out loud.

Second, Kalanick should have asked the driver if they could meet at another time – maybe take the guy out to lunch – to discuss the issue further. Clearly the back of an Uber wasn’t the best place to talk things over, and dragging the conversation out right then and there would have cut into the driver’s time to pick up passengers and collect more fares that night. When they do meet, it would be after Kalanick had time to reflect on whether or not disengaging his employees by cutting their rates is really best for the company. Given the high cost of disengagement for any organization, I’d say he should rethink his strategy and take into account the needs of what literally drives Uber: its employees.

What do you think? Who was in the wrong here, the boss or the employee?

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