Last month, The Globe & Mail asked me to write a piece for their Weekend Commentary & Analysis section about Amazon’s controversial and (some say) “toxic” corporate culture. I blogged about the article soon after it was published in What vs how – Amazon lost sight of the difference. But this topic continues to dominate the news, and is of such great importance and relevance to leaders everywhere that I felt that it deserved to be brought up one more time today.
First some background. The tumult started on August 15 when the New York Times published a lengthy story about Amazon’s “bruising” work culture where only the fittest survive, and the rest are discarded as collateral damage along the way. Interviews with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees painted a workplace characterized by demanding hours and a grueling pace with no room for mistakes or missteps. In this toxic environment, employees are battered with unrelenting deadlines, constant criticism, heartless disregard for personal health and life circumstances, and zero work-life boundaries – all leading to a system that is inherently designed to “churn and burn”. New recruits enter the company, and those that can handle the relentless pressure are tagged as future stars, the rest burnout and leave within 2-3 years; which explains, at least partially, Amazon’s high attrition rates. The story struck a chord with many, and the online world flooded with comments and social media discussion. In fact, the Times officially announced this as “the most commented-on story in NYT history”
My analysis ran in The Globe & Mail‘s print and online editions on August 22, exactly one week later. For me the fundamental issue comes down to Amazon’s inability to balance the how with the what. Somewhere along the way, as this company grew in size, managers in the organization became so focused on results, the WHAT, that they lost sight of the HOW, the people who make results happen, those who are the proverbial wind beneath the wings. You can read my piece directly on The Globe‘s site here: Amazon’s leadership forgot that ‘how’ is as important as ‘what’. Occasionally your access to the direct link at The Globe‘s site may be restricted; if that happens, you can also download the pdf version here: http://mergeg.sg-host.com/PDF/G&M_CommentaryOnline_Aug-22-2015.pdf.
My underlying and critical message to leaders in companies everywhere: sure, codifying your workplace culture so that your employees live and breathe it is one of your most important roles, BUT it is just as vital to emphasize the balance between outcomes and processes, between the end and the means, between the what and the how. Trying to achieve the former without heeding the latter is absolutely a recipe for long-term failure.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and perspectives. What went wrong at Amazon? Or was all this commotion much ado about nothing? Please share your insights by adding your comments below.