Jeff Bezos Says He Wouldn’t Work at That Company Either

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company. – Jeff Bezos

This weekend, the NY Times published a long piece that described an Orwellian Amazon, where employees rat each other out for apparent infractions of corporate norms of conduct, and where a relentless obsession with operational progress and expansion supposedly trumps other principles and culminates in ‘purposeful Darwinism’, where those that can’t keep up the pace — or who are saddled with illness, child-rearing, or other personal demands on their time — are quickly edged out.

I’ve written about Jeff Bezos’ aspirations for Amazon (see What do Amazon and Netflix have in common?, and Amazon’s “two pizza” teams keep it fast and loose) and in particular the Amazon leadership principles that I believe make sense across the board today, and not just at Amazon. For example, one principle is Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit:

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

The bland desire for consensus has become part of business conventional wisdom, but is not linked to high performance. I buy Bezos’ vision for the aggressive mindset often called ‘strong opinions, weakly held’, which means that we should advance our perspective forcefully, looking for the best solution to problems, and to avoid compromise for the sake of consensus. But when new information is presented — data, mind you, not just more opinions — we should reconsider our premises, and change our minds when warranted.

However, these and others of the principles underlying Amazon’s culture are at variance with much of the shallow business culture that animates most businesses, and which forms the training grounds for most workers. This principle — which requires active argumentation to get to better solutions — can be a painful and trying experience for those not grounded in the practice of impersonal, data-centered argument.

And, at the same time, there is nothing built into the application of the philosophy at Amazon that rules out politics, backbiting, striving for power and money, and all the other ills of the rat race. Even the highest ideals can be appropriated by the unscrupulous, and a company the size of Amazon with ambitions to match will certainly attract more than its fair share of jungle fighters willing to take scalps on their war path. A great deal of boundary behavior is likely with so much at stake, I bet.

Bezos responded to the article uncharacteristically, sending out a memo to the company, suggesting that employees read it, and countering it’s conclusions by saying this:

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

Amazon isn’t a single, homogenous company. It’s thousands of variants of the core Amazon, each one different in small or large ways, based on the experiences, backgrounds, and aspirations of those working there. There is no doubt that Bezos’ Amazon and the Amazon of a fulfilment clerk in a shipping center are vastly different, but even the experiences of two similar white collar workers in different marketing teams of different product groups could be totally unlike.

Still, there is a foundational tension at the base of Amazon culture. It’s inescapable. It must be there, like a spring at the heart of a watch.

Amazon exists in a greater society, and the workers work there but live here. But the operational principles of Amazon — like Netflix, Apple, and the other world-beating, high performing giants of our century — are starkly at variance with the business and social tenets of the larger society. That’s part of — and maybe most of — the reason that these companies are disruptive, and are defining the new world we are careening into. That process is not likely to be without disruption of our society. On the contrary, it is inevitable that the deep cultural change necessary for digital transformation of business will change us all, even if we aren’t working at one of those companies. It is coming to change us all, and then everything else.