September 14, 2015

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been in the spotlight recently and it’s been less than flattering. A New York Times article by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld (August 15, 2015) labeled Amazon a “bruising workplace” as the internet retail giant has come under fire for what many are calling a harsh and unreasonable work environment. Yet Bezos and the company’s other top leaders defend the culture, which they call “purposeful Darwinism.” Essentially, you thrive or you get out (either by your choice or theirs.)

Candor About Culture

Bezos and his leadership stand behind the rough-and-tough company culture, and – in the spirit of candor – they have not made an attempt to hide it. Bezos built his company on a series of 14 principles – including Customer Obsession, Bias for Action, and Dive Deep – and makes those values well-known. The leadership touts high accountability, intense creativity and drive, and fierce competition in a fast-paced, ever-changing industry. To paraphrase, Bezos feels that this culture and work ethic is what it takes to be the most successful retailer in the world.

With examples like 3 a.m. emails, “working” vacations, 80 hour work-weeks, it’s hard to believe anyone wants to join the team. However, Bezos’ honesty about the culture has created loyalists, and they describe Amazon as “challenging” and that it simply “takes hard work” to succeed. They also acknowledge that some people just aren’t up for that.

I’m not saying I support Bezos’ leadership or that I’m a fan of Amazon’s culture. What I am saying is that whether or not we like what he has to say, or what the culture is, he appears open, honest and direct about what he believes it takes to succeed and what he expects of anyone who chooses to work there.

Amazon’s Candor Gap

Despite this, there is at least one significant disconnect in candor within Amazon’s culture. While Bezos is unapologetic about the culture and his expectations, he simultaneously fosters an environment of mistrust by encouraging his employees to submit anonymous feedback about peers to their peers’ superiors. Bezos, who is quoted as saying harmony is often overvalued in the workplace, uses the feedback to rank employees and weed out low performers.  As Verne Harnish, CEO of Gazelles, stated in an article about Amazon for Huffington Post:

All businesses, no matter what their culture or core values, need to follow certain universal principles like transparency. Trust (also one of Amazon’s 14 rules) is another of them. Trust depends on employees talking to each other directly if they have a beef with one another. Talking behind each other’s backs makes that impossible.  ~ V. Harnish, Huffington Post, August 20, 2015

This gap – between openness about cultural expectations and a habit of secrecy and disrespect concerning individual performance – threatens creativity, collaboration, and trust within the organization. And it makes employee retention even more challenging in an already-intense environment. While Amazon is experiencing profound financial success, I believe that closing their candor gap would serve them best in the long run.