Leadership

What Amazon's Culture Says About Managing Employees

By / Aug 24, 2015 Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A harsh New York Times assessment of the online retailer’s workplace isn’t about just one company. There are important lessons for how every organization can handle collaboration and feedback.

Conversations about leadership thrive on case studies. Executives love to read them because they help us understand the best—and worst—practices of organizations.

So which is it with Amazon? Best or worst?

As you likely know by now, last week the New York Times published a lengthy and detailed report on the online retailer, arguing that its much-praised culture of innovation takes a serious toll on employees. The Times described a culture of “purposeful Darwinism” in which employees are culled from the company ranks en masse annually, and those who stay endure long hours, an expectation to be always available (even to prioritize the company over their families), and brutalizing teardowns of their ideas. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” said one former marketing staffer.

Staffers called Amazon’s feedback tool “a river of intrigue and scheming.”

Unsurprisingly, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pushed back against the Times’ characterization of his company’s culture: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t either,” he wrote in a companywide email. Staffers disagreed too, feeling that the critique was overstated and forced a negative shading on the company. But the complaints about the article weren’t limited to Amazon circles: Media critics (including the Timesown public editor) sensed a pile-on based on anecdote instead of data, and other tech leaders rose to defend Amazon as well. Venture capitalist Josh Elman dinged the Times for critiquing “a culture that is in many ways winning and innovating.”

Let’s all agree, for starters, that any company that routinely leaves grown-up men and women sobbing and acts callously toward employees caring for dying parents is a bad company. You don’t even need to make a heart-on-sleeve argument for that: High staff turnover is expensive in terms of time and money, and forcing out talented staffers in a competitive tech market isn’t a smart way to implement an innovation strategy.

But even if you’re not running an organization of Amazon’s size and scale, there’s an element to the Amazon story that I think is applicable to a lot of organizations, good or bad, large or small. If it’s not a red flag, it’s certainly a sign that you’re entering some contentious territory. It involves the way the company handles employee feedback.

The Times story notes that one of Bezos’ keystone principles is that “harmony is often overvalued in the workplace” and that employees are encouraged to “rip into colleagues’ ideas with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful.” Pair that with Amazon’s Anytime Feedback Tool, which allows staffers to deliver comments about their fellow employees—data that are used to help rank staffers when it comes to those staff cullings. Amazon says most comments through the tool are positive, but many staffers, the Times writes, “called it a river of intrigue and scheming” and suggested that it “promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event.”

I like dissent and disagreement. I also like moving away from annual performance reviews and toward something more usable and iterative. But Amazon, on the evidence of the Times article, seems to have combined the two in a way that makes every day at the office into a reality program that encourages one-upmanship and schoolyard-grade plotting. (“My idea is great!” “No, my idea is better!” “You’re wrong and I’m telling!” “You’re wrong and I’m going to say nice things about somebody you hate!”) Amazon’s system rewards individual ideas, which isn’t done enough in organizations. But it’s also one that, handled poorly, cultivates rapacious and counterproductive individualism, top to bottom.

It’s interesting, in that light, that none of Amazon’s 14 leadership principles emphasize collaboration and working together—instead, they highlight images of digging and climbing and privilege individuals owning ideas, testing and defending them, making them more effective and efficient. The closest it comes to promoting group cohesion is to say leaders “treat others respectfully.” (The image for that? A fist bump.) Brad Stone, author of the Amazon history The Everything Store, responded to the Times report by noting that Amazon’s culture supports a particular kind of employee mindset that has value in the tech world. But that mindset goes off the rails when people are treated poorly—and stifling collaboration is often license for people to treat each other poorly. So keep Stone’s suggestion in mind: On top of the 14 principles, he writes, “a new 15th principle should go something like this: Have Empathy.”

Even if Bezos is right that harmony is overrated, collaboration isn’t. And whatever is behind Amazon’s success, it’d be foolishness to implement a feedback structure that rewards workers for trampling on colleagues in the name of getting heard and getting ahead.

How do you balance motivating employees to share ideas while encouraging collaboration? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

Comments

Leave a Comment