The Amazon experiment

pressure-65336_1280 Amazon has been on the hot seat following a scathing report in the NY Times on their Darwinian, workaholic culture. Quotes from employees:

    “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

    “I would see people practically combust.”

    “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”

The article went on to describe a stressful, dog-eat-dog, "rank and yank" work environment in which: employees are encouraged to send secret feedback (often negative) on each other’s performance to each other’s bosses; the bottom 10% are always at risk for dismissal to meet quotas; and managers enjoy cutting down each other’s ideas in abrasive fashion.

My favorite quote: “Amazon is a place where high achievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

Employees are forbidden to talk to the press but previous Amazon employees—and current employees off the record—have confirmed the gist of the article. (It should be added that those Amazon leaders who were permitted to be interviewed disputed the article and gave glowing reviews of the place!)

As a long-time organizational consultant I’m shocked, shocked by this.

Of course this is not unique to Amazon. At one company I worked at early in my career the leadership staff routinely belittled their subordinates, who routinely belittled their subordinates, in an elegant spiral of abuse. Meanwhile, a normal life outside of work was unavailable to company leaders, given their after-hour work commitments. I’ve seen this at many other companies too—though not ones as successful as Amazon.

How it works is simple: the leaders of a company usually replicate the personality of the top dog if that boss is the founder of the company. And if that founder is a demanding alpha male without regard for personal boundaries you’ll have unhealthy behavior embedded in the company's DNA for years, until the leader is gone (if even then). To quote a Sumerian saying “As above, so below.”

In the case of Amazon, its boss is its founder, Jeff Bezos—a brilliant, data-driven fellow who fits this profile all too nicely. According to the NY Times article Bezos combines an “eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics.”

Consistent with the above, there are no woman on the top leadership team. One likely cause is the company culture that encourages confrontational disagreement—a no-win environment for a woman leader. One strength of women's leadership—which is finally getting some recognition—is the ability to gracefully push back on ideas they don't agree with. But in a rough-and-tumble management climate a woman who is less openly combative than the men around her is likely to be considered "soft," to be taken less seriously, and to get passed over for advancement. On the other hand, a woman who is more combative is considered "aggressive," "ambitious," and worse. As a result she too becomes marginalized.

And yet…Amazon by most criteria is an astonishing success story. It is now the most valuable retailer in the country and, according to Forbes, the fourth most admired company and eighth most innovative company in the world. Customers marvel at the speed and simplicity with which they can order just about anything on in a matter of seconds.

Also, at Amazon creativity knows no bounds. Independent thinking is highly prized and employees take pride in espousing 14 leadership principles that make them “peculiar.” New hires are often given enormous responsibilities and opportunities to prove themselves right out of the gate.

On the other hand, Amazon is nowhere to be found on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” nor is it highly ranked as a great place to work by employees themselves on Interesting.

But let me jump to a question that's relevant to this blog.

Many mega-successful rock bands (The Beatles and U2 come to mind) have shared some of the same intangible assets as Amazon—having a big dream, wicked smart individuals, a bias for innovation, a high and demanding standard for products/services, a willingness to challenge each other, a tendency to work ridiculously hard, etc. But how come these bands don't also have a toxic work culture, stress and burnout, and cut-throat competition among team members?

Some of this may seem like apples to oranges, given the size of a megacorp like Amazon in contrast to a tiny musical team. But Amazon started small and you can bet it was a harsh and unforgiving pressure-cooker from the start. Why aren’t bands like that?

One answer is that bands exist in part to have fun. Musicians choose their field because they want to PLAY. They’re like kids who want to mess around, try out stuff, screw things up, experiment, and eventually create something they’re proud of. They understand the notion of “serious play.”

To be successful musicians have to take their “work” seriously—in the sense that they have to keep at it and keep improving. But the work itself is play. And innovation requires play, as I allude to frequently in this blog (including here). Musicians instinctively realize that if they aren’t having fun they’re unlikely to create anything cool—and worthwhile.

That sense of fun can displace the grim seriousness of work and the anxiety that too many employees experience in the workplace. The constant worry. The daily panic. All innovation killers.

Jeff Bezos claims that Amazon is a fun place to work. In response to the recent controversy, he said in a memo to employees, “Hopefully you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.” Perhaps. But a whole lot of employees and ex-employees aren’t laughing.

Two additional sets of questions come to mind from this great Amazon experiment.

    1. Is it fine to make employees suffer to provide amazing customer service? Should the customer always come first and the employee second? And who might be negatively affected outside of the organization by the dysfunctional behavior inside of the organization? (Hint: whom do these dispirited employees go home to?) Also, some businesses are known to advocate that employees come first and customers second. A worthwhile discussion for another occasion.

    2. Why do vigorous debate and disagreement among managers—which is indisputably a good thing—have to include blatant antagonism? Why does criticism of an individual’s idea, proposal, project, etc. need to be heard as a personal attack, delivered with disrespect? Is there some kind of perverse game being played out at the top of a company like this, which becomes dutifully but thoughtlessly replicated throughout the system? Should a leader’s mega-success excuse deeper issues that need to be looked at? These are more disturbing questions.

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  1. Bands such as The Beatles, egalitarian or democratic in formation, share everything, including the fun and the stresses. The only enemies to that formula are ego or burnout.

    However, 'corporate' music organizations, which have a single leader (or employer), are more stressful on a full-time basis. Both James Brown and Lawrence Welk were known to fine their employees for making any small mistake during a performance. Or just fire them outright.

    Either way, a professional music career is not for the faint of heart.

    1. Yes, the "corporate" music organizations or teams with totalitarian leaders share many of the worst features of a toxic, high-stress culture. Musical teams that are more democratic are free to keep the fun in the game.

  2. I believe corporate culture is just a mirror of culture, period. Most societies are built on the age-old concept that might makes right. Bullying and violence.

    What surprises me is that any company manages to turn a profit when they embrace gentler methods.

    This is the reality exposed by experiments in cooperation and competition. The higher the stakes, the more the average person is willing to take from others to keep for themselves — especially when the others are strangers, where there's no trusting relationship.

    Put a handful of blokes like you and I in a room with the promise of $20 for not pressing the button but $5 to anyone who does, we'd all sit there writing songs in our heads till the timer ran out.

    Add just one stranger, or worse, one person we knew to be selfish, contrary, or mean, and we'd all press the button in self-preservation.

    Reason #23 that I work for myself and will never take a job again. Ever.

    1. Well, yeah. But that's exactly the problem. And "boys being boys" can understate the seriousness of it.

      After I pounded out a thousand words on this last night I woke up this morning wondering if I'm making too big a deal about it. Amazon is, after all, a company that's giving customers everything they want and MORE. It's a spectacular success story. But ... abusive practices beget more abusive practices. And former Amazon managers are spreading the Amazon culture to new businesses, with undesirable consequences. But finally folks are talking about it.

      1. Don't forget that as the Amazon population continues to explode, its employees and ex-employees will become a larger percentage of Greater Seattle -- which will further spread the Amazon gospel, for better or worse. As an HR professional who is concerned about employee health & well-being, I don't see this as a good thing.

  3. One of Amazon's former employees who was quoted by the NY Times about staying up four days straight to complete a project has a fuller explanation for the story, in which she takes responsibility for her actions, though they were in response to the demands she felt from her work. (See here.) She also singled out two Amazon managers—one who discouraged her independent-minded approach to a project and one who lauded it—as examples of the bad and good in Amazon management.

    More interestingly she described working at an Amazon subsidiary, Zappos—a company I’ve written about before—which has a culture that is antithetical to Amazon. She speculated about the benefits of a company culture that combined the best of both—the left brain of Amazon and the right brain of Zappos.

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