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Amazon Exposé Shines A Light On Corporate Nature Vs. Nurture

In this June 16, 2014, file photo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos walks onstage for the launch of the new Amazon Fire Phone, in Seattle. A New York Times article portrayed Amazon’s work culture as “bruising” and “Darwinian” in part because of the way it uses data to manage its staff. Amazon’s CEO said in a memo to staff on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, that the article doesn’t accurately describe the company culture he knows. (Ted S. Warren/ AP)
In this June 16, 2014, file photo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos walks onstage for the launch of the new Amazon Fire Phone, in Seattle. A New York Times article portrayed Amazon’s work culture as “bruising” and “Darwinian” in part because of the way it uses data to manage its staff. Amazon’s CEO said in a memo to staff on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, that the article doesn’t accurately describe the company culture he knows. (Ted S. Warren/ AP)
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In 1999, as an accidental founder of a startup, I got a firsthand view of how new businesses get financed, establish their creation myths, and develop their cultures. I’d sit with the well-connected former president of our company as he schmoozed with fellow angel capitalists and MBA classmates in those heady end-of-the-century days before the Internet bubble popped. And after looking at the PowerPoints, clicking on a few links, and listening to our vision, a prospective investor named Nick or Hal or Alex would stretch out his lanky legs in front of him, roll up his Egyptian cotton shirt sleeves, place his hands prayer-like on the table in front of him, and ask, “Is this going to be another boutique business, you know, a lifestyle company, or are you intending to build something with teeth?”

He was effectively demanding to know whether we were trying to create a company that would eventually be self-sustaining and allow those of us working there to have lives outside the office, or one with larger ambitions. Did we plan to erect and honor borders between our work and personal lives, or were we prepared to invest extraordinary passion, time and energy to grow a business that would rapidly and handsomely reward them (and potentially even us)? There was only one right answer.

Had Jeff Bezos and his minions articulated and created an infrastructure designed to support values like work-life balance or consensus-building, or even intuition, the retailer would not be the voracious omnivore, the king of the retail jungle, that it is today.

Though Amazon is rapidly dominating the world of retail, its culture is apparently still defined by many of the same values that propel most startups. A recent New York Times article depicts a company characterized by audacious goal-setting, perpetual bar-raising and the expectation that employees will be available and responsive to work-related demands at any hour of any day. But added to that mix is what a former Amazon human resources executive refers to as “Purposeful Darwinism” — an explicit policy of using the staggering volume of data about employee productivity and performance to sustain a continuous cycle of culling.

Amazon isn’t alone in applying Big Data analytics to employee management. Indeed, the newly published book, "The Decoded Company," describes how to use “ambient data” — the kind generated by people engaging in ordinary tasks like sending and receiving email, swiping their security card to get in and out of buildings, using their company-issued cellphone, and planning trips on their company-sponsored travel site — to inform every decision a company makes about its employees. This isn’t necessarily as Orwellian as it sounds — presumably one can generate helpful information about who the “go-to” people in an organization are, or how frequently or effectively managers are communicating with their subordinates. And of course, it’s also got the potential to be even more insidious than it sounds, replacing judgment with algorithms and empathy with metrics.

Meanwhile, back at Amazon, managers augment all of this automated data with old-fashioned office intrigue, relying on staffers to anonymously submit praise or criticism to their peers’ supervisors via the “Anytime Feedback Tool” on their desktops. They recruit, push, then cut employees from the workforce, always with the goal of retaining and rewarding only the most driven, accomplished “Amabots.”

But as brutal as this workplace may be, some employees defend the culture. After all, the company offers good compensation, is willing to accept risk, and has a genuine passion for innovation. Leaders are encouraged to have “backbone” and publicly disagree; employees have the chance to take ownership of an idea and act on it without slogging through a dense undergrowth of red tape. What’s more, they argue, Amazon is upfront in their recruitment and hiring, making it eminently clear to would-be employees about what’s expected of them. They memorize and trumpet their values -- which read like they could have been written by a genetically engineered hybrid from the cell lines of Ayn Rand and Abbie Hoffman --- and for better or worse, live by them.

And here’s the nut of the matter: Those values probably are responsible for the company’s valuation (which now surpasses Wal-Mart’s, making Amazon the best-financed retailer in the country). Had Jeff Bezos and his minions articulated and created an infrastructure designed to support values like work-life balance or consensus-building, or even intuition, the retailer would not be the voracious omnivore, the king of the retail jungle, that it is today. It might have been (shhh....) a lifestyle company.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’d love to sit in a room of angel investors or venture capitalists and hear a supplicating would-be CEO stand and declare, “We believe in reasonableness. We want to build a temperate workplace that will yield only moderate profits, for now and the foreseeable future! We want to be the Canada of startups!”

I’d love to ... hear a supplicating would-be CEO stand and declare, 'We believe in reasonableness. We want to build a temperate workplace that will yield only moderate profits, for now and the foreseeable future!'

I’m writing this on a day when the stock market has lost another 6 percent of its value (taking a comparable toll on my retirement savings … not that I’m bitter), and it’s clearer than ever that contemporary capitalism has little room for moderation. Ours is now a bipolar economic system, driving an ever-expanding wedge between the shrinking fraction of haves and the growing mass of have-nots, and subject to wild mood swings that both reflect and fuel financial and political extremism.

So is it possible to create a viable business with a corporate culture that values civility and restraint, that doesn’t artificially suppress growth but also doesn’t aspire to dominance? I don’t know. The little 1999 startup that I’m most familiar with is now a grown-up, modestly multinational company that matured on the strength of mutual respect, treating people as grown-ups, and honoring employees as well as clients. That’s been good enough for me.

But then, I grew up in Canada.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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