Culture, Competition & Consequences: Insights From Amazon

It’s been a tough week for Amazon. By the sound of it, though, it has been an even tougher couple of decades for some of Amazon’s employees.

Said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, in response to a detailed and scathing critique of white collar practices at the uber-retailer: “…I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

There is something interesting about that statement: it seems to imply a lack of confidence about whether or not his assertion is, in fact, accurate. Do his employees recognize Amazon in the NY Times article? Could this be the culture he has created? Is it possible that he, despite his influence, is oblivious—or worse, shielded—from fully knowing and understanding the full implications of what it means to work at Amazon?

Shortly after the initial article was posted, an Amazon manager (with admittedly only 18 months of experience with the firm) offered his own take down of the allegations. As the bromide goes, “where there is smoke, there’s fire.” And there certainly appears to be ample evidence of questionable workplace practices through Amazon. One profile talks about ambulances on standby outside of a warehouse to deal with (presumably predictable) cases of heatstroke, before finally investing in air conditioning.

At the same time, there are arguments that the tech industry is famous for long hours, and that smaller, intense teams are more productive than larger teams working standard days. And yes, there is some truth in this. Let’s start by challenging an assertion in the Vox article about the best programmers being ten times more productive than average.

The source for this assertion is the book Peopleware, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Contrary to the statements in the article, DeMarco and Lister found that sometimes coders DID write ten times as many lines of code. Sometimes they found elegant solutions that enabled them to find the same solution with a tenth of the effort (and a tenth of the code). Worse, they found that the potential range in productivity exists in all of us; we have the capacity to be highly productive—and highly unproductive—on different days and in different circumstances.

So what does all of this mean for Amazon and its theoretical culture of abuse, overwork and intolerance. The reality is that it is probably, at least in part, true. Even Ciubotariu’s defence of Amazon acknowledges a culture that—at least in the past—was pretty toxic. These legacies linger. Managers find modes of operation that work, and with that can opt for shortcuts to performance and ‘motivation,’ particularly if such behaviours were not just accepted but condoned.

In particular, cultures that encourage comparison, competition and an excessive emphasis on perfection run a very real risk of creating inhumane working conditions. I saw this first hand running my own (admittedly much smaller) company, where expectations and standards of quality resulted in a variety of unintended political, performance and personal consequences. In as data-driven an organization as Amazon, the potential for seemingly objective data to be used and manipulated to thwart, undermine and sabotage becomes that much more problematic.

That’s not to say that measurement itself is necessarily bad. It is more a question of what is measured, and how that measurement data is used. Reading the original article, one gets a strong sense that measurement has come to pervade all aspects of Amazon’s corporate existence. Data doesn’t just evaluate the customer experience, it evaluates all experiences.

“What gets measured gets managed” is a management truth cited so often as to sound trite. That doesn’t make it less true. Measure how many hours people work, how many orders are processed an hour, how much individuals are liked by their colleagues and you will see very quickly the law of unintended consequences brought to bear. Measure, and people start to compare. Compare, and people start to climb upwards. In doing so, there is a real risk that their ascent will be in part accelerated by climbing the bodies of those beneath them in the rankings.

Here’s an interesting question, though: Can the assertions of abuse be true, as well as Bezos’ protestations of shock and incredulity that this is the culture he has created? My experience as an employer and a consultant says yes, unequivocally. Executives frequently operate in echo chambers, where they only hear what they want to. In such environments, direct reports are actively and unconsciously taught what information is accepted and what is rejected. In the rarified air of the executive floor, it is easy to be seduced by what the numbers are telling you, without probing in much detail on how those results are being realized, and the very real cost of performance attainment.

For the executive that truly cares about culture and consequences, challenging this state of affairs is a multi-pronged effort. Executives need to be conscious of the expectations they set, and how those expectations can be perceived by those below them. They need to actively seek contrary and controversial perspectives. Most importantly, they need to invest the time to assure themselves first hand that the direction they provide is aligned with the values and principles that they most value. Compromise the message and you compromise the results. By all accounts, Bezos has been uncompromising in his message of performance, ambition and relentless improvements. He may now be expressing shock at the results.

Amazon is unquestionably a successful organization when measured by stock market capitalization, even if it has yet to consistently and reliably turn a profit. Amazon is also a coveted career destination (or at least stopping place) for a veritable legion of ambitious professionals. There are those who thrive in competitive, fast-paced meritocracies where high performance is rewarded. There are those who want to feel like they are making a difference in an organization that touches the lives of millions. For some, their work doesn’t just reinforce their meaning and purpose, it defines it. “I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from,” said a former Amazon employee. To some, that is going to be one insanely powerful drug.

Bezos says that he doesn’t recognize the Amazon in the article. It is possible that he doesn’t WANT to recognize the Amazon in the article. Take competition, measurement, stack-ranking, hubris, passion and drive, mix in a high-pressure environment with a dash of unintended consequences, and you will get something that looks a lot like the culture described in the New York Times article. That’s not to say that managers and executives will be celebrating the grinding, soulless and punishing environment they have created. But from the bottom of the organization chart it just might look that way.

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