Amazon’s Culture Problem

amazon's culture problem

One of Amazon’s 14 principles of leadership is entitled, “Have backbone; disagree and commit.” It suggests employees “challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”

We’ve all seen how that policy has propelled Amazon’s success—but we rarely get a glimpse of how it affects the overall culture of the organization until now.

In a groundbreaking New York Time’s article Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld talked with over 100 former and current Amazon employees and learned how Amazon’s culture drives success, but fuels internal problems.

The article profiles current and ex employees who show an unnerving underbelly in Amazon’s culture: “Every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk” and “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot” [read: robot.] and, “You drown someone in the deep end of the pool” in order to poach their talent.

Clearly, the culture is competitive and as their leadership principles dictate, people are encouraged to “tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings.”

While Jeff Bezos has made a fortune from this completive culture, some think it will end up having long-term drawbacks. Talent is leaving and prospective employees are reluctant to join Amazon especially when employees feel like “the CEO of the company [is] in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.”

Of course those at Amazon “shoot for the moon” and want to think big and invent. They don’t mind toughing it out to be at the cutting edge. But can they continually push the envelope in such a culture?

Through our work at BLG we have found that organizations, both large and small, work better and produce more divergent ideas when their teams operate in an environment of safety.

Amazon’s competitive atmosphere requires bright talent to bring their best ideas to the table and have them withstand a gauntlet of criticisms and questions. Yet innovation research and BLG practice has found this practice doesn’t open the door to truly divergent, blue-ocean thinking.

To innovate ideas must be shared, but they must also be protected and added on to. Knocking an idea down will only stop the next idea from being aired.

Leaders must foster an environment where people can challenge, but aren’t pushing. They need to evaluate without judging and give feedback apart from political mechanisms.

And this is something Bezos can do. He himself said, “Part of company culture is path-dependent—it’s the lessons you learn along the way,” and, more recently, “My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture.”

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