It’s a Jungle Out There, Especially at Amazon

Jeff Bezos has a problem. And the fact that he seems unaware of it is only part it. Last weekend’s long and scathing New York Times piece on Amazon.com’s corporate culture described a hard-driving, but also back-biting and burn-out inducing environment inside the company Mr. Bezos founded.

Some Amazonians have responded defensively. In a memo to his staff that subsequently leaked, Mr. Bezos himself wrote: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I hope you don’t either.” Mr. Bezos encouraged anyone who did recognize the culture the Times described—little respect for work-life balance, 24/7 demands on employees’ time, sink-or-swim performance reviews—to write to HR, or to him directly (in that order, tellingly).

The wife of one former Amazonian took him up on the offer in an open letter published by Quartz.com. Beth Anderson described her husband’s time at Amazon thus:

As his one-woman pit crew, it was my responsibility to wake up with him when he was paged in the middle of the night, to pull over somewhere on the highway to find him WiFi if he was paged on the road, and to make sure that our lives never involved traveling anywhere more than 15 minutes from an internet connection.

As Ms. Anderson notes, there are surely many happy people who work at Amazon and thousands who thrive on its culture. There may also be departments in Amazon that look nothing like the relentlessly Darwinian place that the New York Times and Ms. Anderson describe.

But Mr. Bezos should take only limited comfort in that. His problem is real, and to the extent that it is, asking current employees to come forward may or may not flush it out. Many of them are probably too afraid of the consequences, which is why Mr. Bezos had to learn about his problem in the pages of the New York Times.

Corporate cultures are, by their nature, self-sustaining and self-reinforcing. People who love a workplace stay—and because there’s no accounting for taste, somebody probably loves it almost anywhere. The questions Mr. Bezos should be asking are:  What are the unseen costs of a corporate culture that seems to drive off a significant number of otherwise talented and successful people? And are those costs worth it?

Nick Ciubotariu wrote a lengthy and hectoring LinkedIn diatribe that Mr. Bezos encouraged Amazonians to read alongside the Times piece. In it, he evinces a real love for and conviction about what Amazon does and how it works. Mr. Ciubotariu may be lucky, or he may be part of the problem. I don’t know him or the people who work for him or for whom he works. But his own writing leaves little doubt about how forcefully he defends what he believes. In the terms of Amazon’s leadership principles, he clearly has “Backbone.”

Still, another of Amazon’s principles is that leaders should “work to disconfirm their beliefs.” So far, Amazon and its Amazonians seem more interested in disconfirming the Times’ reporting than their own self-belief. Interestingly, the admonition to disconfirm one’s beliefs comes under a heading that says leaders “Are Right, a Lot.” One hopes that the last two words are meant to underscore that they’re also wrong (at least sometimes). But I wonder whether that subtlety always comes across to the hard-driving and ambitious types that Amazon appears to both seek and cultivate.

When Isaac Getz and I were writing our book, Freedom, Inc., we insisted on going inside the companies we were writing about. And whenever we could, we’d stop someone in the hall—someone who hadn’t been prepped for the visitors, or told what the party line was—and ask them what they thought of the company’s culture. This was a double test: In the best-run companies we found, those men and women on the street genuinely loved what they did. And the corporate bigwigs weren’t afraid of our unscripted encounters with their employees.

In 14 years as a business journalist and five years doing field research on management philosophy, I never met a CEO who thought (or would admit) that his company’s corporate culture was toxic. Most of the time, sadly, they have no idea what their front-line employees really think about working at their company. And for the most part, that’s because those employees assume that the company runs the way the boss wants it too. If that’s not true in Amazon’s case, it will take more than a memo to fix what ails Amazon. That Mr. Bezos doesn’t recognize his own company in the experiences of the people who used to work for him is evidence of a problem, not of the absence of one.

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