Amazon and Unintended Culture

business cultureA lot has been written about the NY Times exposé on Amazon and their culture. The article describes a fast-paced, innovative, customer service-obsessed environment that has led to profits for investors and created the largest retailer in the world. What it also points out are the unintended results of this drive and commitment to 14 Leadership Principles in terms of culture.

The fallout of the article was Jeff Bezos publically saying that he stands behind his principles and that he does not recognize the culture described in the article. He believes they must be isolated incidents because he would not stand for such callous treatment of workers, etc. I have personally known several former Amazon employees and their stories are very similar to those in the article. I also have spoken to others who confirm hearing the same types of stories within their circles. This isn’t a little smoke, it’s a full-blown raging wildfire.

So how did this happen? How did Amazon become so successful on the outside and so miserable on the inside? They were right to identify their Leadership Principles or Values from the start. What was not done well was to make sure these were being implemented in the way that Bezos intended. There are a number of aberrations between the intended values and the reality of them that we could call out, but I’m just going to focus on a particularly critical one here:

“Earn Trust”

The language that Amazon uses to describe this value is,Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.”

On the surface, this sounds good and workable, (although the “body odor” language is unusual), however, when you couple it with Amazon’s and Bezos’ data obsession, problems are likely to occur. In Amazon’s case, the way this has played out is that leadership created a way for Amazonian’s to give one another feedback, both positive and negative indirectly. So even if an employee doesn’t want to challenge someone to their face, they can go behind their back and fill out the information and send it anonymously to HR. Regardless of whether the information is true or false, it’s now on the employee’s record. What this creates is an environment where if you don’t watch your back, prepare to be stabbed. And even if you do, the culture rewards those who essentially crawl over the bodies of those in their path to get what they want.

The unintended culture created by the data-driven tool has completely obliterated the employees’ ability to trust that they will be treated candidly and respectfully. In fact, the opposite is rewarded. The article listed several examples of life emergencies that were treated so callously by managers and HR that I’m sure everyone got the message loud and clear that not only is the principle not trustworthy, you cannot trust your co-workers.

Unfortunately, actions always speak louder than words. A leadership principle enshrining “Earn Trust” is one thing. An active system that encourages people to rat out and tear down their peers is the real culture at work.

Every value, leadership or guiding principle in a business must be reinforced by systems and behaviors. This has to be inspected routinely, just as you would a very intricate scientific instrument for safety. If not, the unintended culture or “real” culture will become the company’s legacy.