BLG Leadership Insights

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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BLG Leadership Insights

Technology & Social Media Threatens a Leaders Ability to Engage

Isolation can be nice. Sometimes it’s great to just get away from the world, put your feet up and throw your cares out the window. Then again it’s hard to find nooks and crannies in this modern world that aren’t infested with ways to communicate. But there is a flip side to all of this. The more we rely on this same technology to feel connected, the more we can in fact become isolated, even if we are surrounded by the teaming masses.

One of the keys to leadership is engagement. Engagement is the act, if not the art, of connecting in a number of different ways with those who surround you at work and at home. It’s an implicit, if not explicit, psychological bond in which each party feels the capacity to be open, to be candid, and to be involved. When you are properly engaging with anyone, both parties really feel free to share without worrying about consequences. This doesn’t mean you should run out of your office and start telling people you barely know that they smell bad (that will lead to the almost instant isolation of unemployment), instead it means that you need to create bonds with those around you to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to getting things done.

You might be saying to yourself, “Self, I email and message everyone that I lead in my office two or three times a day, I really stay connected.” Annoying the living daylights out of your employees is not a form of engagement or at least not a form that will get you anywhere. Instead, you need to get off a certain unnamed body part and move from behind your desk/work station/park bench.

What you really need is plenty of old fashion face-to-face communication. Modern technology is all about disseminating information quickly. It’s about telling people what you think in the blink of an eye. Believe it or not, it has the power to make us MORE isolated–not less. The keys to honest engagement are listening, asking questions, and giving feedback. Despite what you might have read, you just can’t do that with an email. Heck even a good old fashion telephone call is better.

Isolation might be something we all need now and again, but in order to avoid having it become a permanent condition, we need to avoid the false feeling of engagement that modern communication has lulled us into.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m writing this blog on a laptop, sending it in via email and waiting by the smartphone for an IM telling me it’s been published, but I’m not fooling myself by thinking any of that is even remotely related to engaging those I work with.

Picture Credit: Leo Reynolds