Amazon versus The New York Times

Posted on Posted in Corporate Culture, Leadership, Organizational Behavior Management, Quality of work life

This week the NY Times published an important article on Amazon and its very competitive, demanding culture. http://www.nytimes.com/…/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-…

I think it, and the response to it from Jeff Bezos and others, are important reading. My take:

The New York Times Expose

The Times reporters interviewed at least one hundred current and former employees. The authors of the article, essentially said that Amazon was an extremely stressful, even brutal, place to work. They quoted one employee who said that he can’t remember a single colleague who he did not see crying at his or her desk at some point. It reported that, “At Amazon, workers are encouBezosraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.”

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO replied to the article by saying that even he would not want to work in a company with a culture like that portrayed in the article. “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.” Mr. Bezos urged his 180,000 employees to give The Times article “a careful read” but said it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

I suggest that both Bezos and those interviewed for the Times article are honestly and accurately portraying the culture as seen through their eyes and their experience. It is normal for individuals living in any culture to experience it in different ways.

The Leadership Lesson

Here is what I think the real lesson of the story is: Amazon has grown out of the highly competitive Internet and technology environment and is daily competing to bring new products and services to market. They have succeeded so far because of the intensity of their culture. They have been in the conquering “barbarian” stage of expansion and they are deliberately trying to hold on to that culture beyond the point at which it normally drifts into a more stable and comfortable state. Culturally, it is still a start up! And start ups, fighting for their lives and to grab a piece of market territory that they can call their own, live at a level of intensity that makes many extremely uncomfortable. They are at war!

Do they “tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings?” Probably so. Assuming they are not tearing apart the person, it is a requirement of intellectual rigor to criticLifeCycles1ally analyse any new proposal. Some will leave the meeting in tears and complain of a lack of empathy. On the other hand, if the idea stands up to rigorous intellectual analysis, it may be the next great business innovation. This is a normal routine in high growth companies.

This culture is not for those who seek comfort, just as the conquering army is not the place for those who do their best in a stable and secure environment. My guess is that Amazon is straddling the Barbarian and Builder/Explorer stage of my life cycle model (see below for a quick explanation). This is a good place to be in an external environment that is filled with rapidly emerging competitors and changing technologies. If you aren’t conquering you are probably about to be conquered!

LifeCycles5Managing the culture of a company is like tuning a stringed instrument: over tighten and it makes a squealing horrible sound; under tighten and it sounds dead. What is too much pressure for one person is not for another. I cannot tell which is the case at Amazon, but reading this article and the responses may help you reflect on the tension… good or bad… in your own company. If you want to grow, you need to maintain that “creative dissatisfaction” that drives employees to innovate and perform at a high level. On the other hand, you want a culture that does not drive away the most creative and capable. Amazon could not have succeeded as it has if its culture was driving away its most talented. It can’t be that bad!

And the Winner Is…

Who is the winner of the Bezos – NYT controversy? I declare the winner to be the shareholders of Amazon! I suspect that everyone reporting on the culture, on both sides, is telling the truth. And that means that the tension of the strings is probably about right. In my view, it is a reason to invest in Amazon.

 (For those not familiar with my life cycle model here is a quick explanation. It is derived from Arnold Toynbee’s study of the rise and fall of twenty-three civilizations and his analysis of the cultural characteristics and leadership styles as civilizations emerge and decline. My book applies this model to corporations. On the upside, there is the creative one, who delivers “the Word” the creative act. He or she is the Prophet. Then there is the conqueror, the Barbarian leader of crisis and command, followed by the beginning of organizational differentiation and specialization, the Builder and Explorer. With size and specialization, administrative functions are increasingly required to provide coordination and control and a time comes with the Administrator is in charge. This soon leads to the controlling Bureaucrat who drives out creativity and you are finally left with the Aristocrat who looks marvelous but can do little value-adding work. The leadership characters are intended as metaphors for stages of the evolution of corporate culture.)

3 thoughts on “Amazon versus The New York Times

  1. Very well analysed. In this world, even to stay where you are you have to move. To get ahead, it needs effort, dedication,sacrifice . I hope NYT does similar studies other companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google and compare. Such exercises should not have ulterior motives.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Relative to the recent spate of articles that have recently appeared in the news – regarding the persistence (within the American work environment) of the thinking/belief that “internal competition” and creating a “survival-of-the-fittest” driven work environment is not only a desirable thing to have/promote, but that it also results (erroneously so, IMO) in a more healthy place to work… in terms of both the organization’s overall performance capabilities and those of its members – all I can say in response is that after having had the opportunity to work in such an environment, I have to conclude that such a notion is little more than a ILLUSION. And that illusion is being purposefully created for the self-serving intent of those at the top (i.e., those who stand to gain the most from the “discounted” labor rates it creates). In that regard, one might even liken such practices to being a socio-technical ponzi scheme; where the only way to keep it going is to have the “suckers” (aka ponzis) continually buying into the illusion that have something of great value to gain by participating in the highly-competitive, dog-eat-dog process. In reality, the vast majority of the participants end up giving away more than they get back.

    By my experience, the only truly sustainable modus operandi for today’s and tomorrow’s most viable organizations is what I refer to as the “Musketeer” model; where the fundamental pattern of behavior involves not only pursuing one’s own fullest potential, but more importantly that of acting in a collective manner in pursuit of the organization’s fullest potential. In doing so, the key to achieving this objective lies in supporting each other… as in the Musketeers’ motto, “ONE-FOR-ALL and ALL-FOR-ONE!”

    In this regard, as I’ve noted in a number of my LI postings, the traditional “leader-follower” model is outdated and dysfunctional in the vast majority (if not all) of today’s rapid-paced business environments. In an organization where only the fittest are allowed/permitted/chosen to be the “LEADERS” (and rest shall follow), the opportunities to leverage everyone’s talent to the fullest degree possible is greatly diminished. In contrast, there is a more effective leadership model available to work with: one that is based on a “leader-leader” modus operandi – which is highly collaborative/supportive in nature. It’s a modus operandi that produces a work environment where there’s no room for the sort of “internal competition” and/or “survival-of-the-fittest” thinking and behaving; that is allegedly endemic to certain “high-return” organizations as mentioned in the NYT article.

    That said, I would beg to differ with your conclusion as to who the winners and losers might be relative to those organizations that persist in maintaining highly competitive work environments. You suggest the winners are likely to be the shareholder above and beyond all others. I would suggest that such a state of affairs is really only a temporary illusion. Over the longer-term, there really are no winners to speak of – at least as far as the notion of sustainability is concerned. One of the central managerial practices and philosophical tenants underlying/enabling the long-standing success and on-going durability of Toyota – as a world leader in its industry – involves the practice referred to as “RESPECT FOR PEOPLE/HUMANITY.” And that practice does not involve the sort of “survival-of-the-fittest” competition that is described in the NYT article. Rather, it rests on the willingness of all members within an organization to work cooperatively and collaboratively; and to do so in manner that ensures each individual will be developing (and contributing) to the fullest extent possible. In such an organization, ALL BRAINS AND BODIES WILL BE ENGAGED – SIMULTANEOUSLY – IN PURSUIT/REALIZATION OF THE ORGANIZATION’S STRATEGIC INTENT, NOT JUST THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST.

  3. Jay,

    Regarding the internal “dog-eat-dog” competition: Competition is a good thing and some degree of tension or anxiety can be a good thing… BUT, that competition and tension should be about EXTERNAL, not INTERNAL compeition. Just as on an athletic team, the entire team should be anxious about winning the next game and the championship, NOT about competing with their team mates.

    You know I am a big promonant of teams and teamwork because I believe that need for belong to a group is in our DNA…literally! We survived by working in small groups, families, tribes, etc. and we do our best work when we feel part of a group. That doesn’t mean that we don’t compete and don’t have some level of anxiety… but it is directed in a healthy way.

    As to “winners” – I think the organization and all its stakeholders can be winners if the tension reflected in the Amazon article are based on developing the next product, the next market, etc. If those tensions are the result of people abusing people than that is entirely counter productive.

    Cheers, Larry

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