The New York Times’ “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” has created quite a stir among news outlets, current and former employees. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, and former White House Secretary Jay Carney quickly defended the company, saying that Amazon is nothing like what the article presents.
I only know Amazon as a customer and through one of my wife’s relatives who works for them. In fact, I have been chastised for a previous Talent Management blog I wrote on Amazon. While I hesitated to comment on this New York Times article without direct observation of the Amazon workplace, I feel obligated to respond because of the article’s length, other articles on the web that echo a similar story, the management systems used by Amazon and requests for my comments by customers and others.
One thing is for certain: Bezos is a smart man who does a lot of things right. Unfortunately, in my professional opinion, human behavior is not one of them. He seems to have the belief that you have to push people to do great things and that numbers alone tell you who is working hard and who is not, which is far from the case.
Perhaps as part of his damage control, Bezos sent a letter to employees this week, enlisting them to either tell HR or email him directly regarding managers who were behaving like the Times story related. He said, “Our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.” Interestingly, he said the tolerance “needs” to be zero. My recommendation is that it “is” zero.
In many respects, working at Amazon is a glamour job. It is quite profitable, growing at a phenomenal pace, taking on new markets by the day and providing young people with opportunities usually not given to them. So, what’s not to like? In a glamour industry or company, people will put up with bad management to keep working in it. In the space industry, even janitors took pride in being able to tell everyone where they worked.
As with many companies, Amazon’s problems can be found in their human management systems, processes and management behaviors. Anytime you have to push people to produce, innovate or be creative, you have a culture where you have to not only continually keep the pressure on but also eventually push even harder. When you do, you become more negative in using pressure tactics. I think for those who know the science of behavior, it will be clear that Amazon, whether they know it, has a negative reinforcement culture.
The seductive aspects of a culture driven by negative reinforcement are that under certain conditions it does produce results, and people seem to be OK. However, as the poet Maya Angelou said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In a negative reinforcement culture, people are reluctant to criticize, especially their bosses. Even though Bezos has given permission for employees to contact him directly when their boss does not comply with the culture he wants for Amazon, I predict that few will do so. Even when he visits Amazon facilities, it is unlikely that he will see or hear what the culture is really like. To get the real story, he will need to go undercover “Undercover Boss” style, but I am not sure how Bezos could be disguised.
Amazon has been successful, for example, in expanding the number and variety of products that a customer can purchase with “one click.” I love it, and I believe that a lot of Amazon employees involved in developing these revenue streams love it, too.
The problem Bezos needs to consider is how can we continue to innovate, expand revenue streams and make it last. History shows that many past giants of industry have fallen by the wayside, and although some failed because they didn’t change along with the changing times, many failed because of the way they treated people.
When there are two views of the culture as different as they can be, the most productive way to benefit from the Times article is to assume that it is a true reflection of the culture that Bezos and other senior managers have created. It is a mistake to write a letter asking people to rat on each other or call out managers and supervisors, as well as proclaim that we are no worse than others in our space.
Top management should instead make changes that will motivate every one of their more than 150,000 employees to want to do their best, rather than to feel that they “have to do it, or else.” It can be done. And if it is done, Amazon will continue to grow at an amazing rate. If not, it will face increasing problems in all aspects of their business.
You may also be interested in viewing “Do We Need Tough Bosses and Overvaluing Smart Talented People.”