Like They Do at Amazon, Must You Forgo a Pleasant Work Environment to Succeed?

Business analysts have long claimed that a positive work environment leads to enhanced employee satisfaction, adding to morale, retention and productivity. In fact, an Entrepreneur magazine infographic shows that companies with happy employees outperform the competition by 20 percent. So, then, how can super-retailer Amazon’s success have sprouted from—what the New York Times has called—a harsh and unforgiving culture? Recently surpassing Walmart as the world’s most valuable retailer, with a market value of $250 billion, Amazon has nevertheless been described as a place where employees are held to unreasonably high standards and encouraged to work exorbitant hours and sabotage each other’s ideas.

An August exposé by the Times said that Amazon is “stronger than ever” in part due to its ability to “extract the most from employees.” The national publication interviewed more than 100 current and former employees who contrasted the “sometimes punishing” culture with what many called its “thrilling power to create.” Some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Yet, one employee was quoted as saying, “You’ll walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face. Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Is this kind of “bruising” atmosphere, as the Times described it, necessary to succeed? Is Amazon getting a leg up on the competition by responding more quickly to changes in the marketplace that somehow require the company to extract a pound of flesh from each employee? Will other businesses soon need to catch up—and as callously (Amazon employees talk of not being given time to recuperate from miscarriages, cancer and other personal crises)?

Or does the Amazon culture, created and enforced by founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, simply flow from one man’s personality, ethics and drive—without being any sort of mandatory template for success?

Let’s hope the latter is more true. And there may be merit in that contention, as Amazon is not hitting its stride with all measures of success—not by a long shot. For example, according to the Times, Amazon has a reputation for high attrition. It cites a 2013 PayScale survey that puts the organization’s employee tenure at one year—among the briefest amongst Fortune 500 companies. Unfortunately, Amazon is reportedly OK with high employee turnover—saying it is in line with identifying and retaining superstars. Yet, the newspaper further substantiates that, in Seattle alone, more than 4,500 jobs are open, including one for an analyst specializing in “high-volume hiring.”

But Amazon is obviously doing something right. If you look past the frequent combat, lack of empathy and unrelenting stress, the company has strategically optimized the following three areas:

  • Data-driven management: Bezos turned his organization on early to the power of metrics for meeting customer demands. According to the Times, Amazon has more data than any retail operation in history. The data is leveraged to press employees to ever-greater levels of productivity—giving them the details they need to “fix” things not currently meeting customer expectations. Detailed metrics allow the company to stay ultra-aware of customer behaviors and habits, creating a lot of clarity around decision making. “We’re trying to create those moments for customers where we’re solving a really practical need,” said Stephenie Landry, an Amazon operations executive, as quoted in the Times article. Amazon collects real-time metrics on nearly everything its customers do—from what they put in their shopping carts to what associated products they’ll demand next based on previous purchases. Company data even provides insight on engineer-built pages that are loading too slowly and when a vendor manager’s stock of a particular inventory item is running low.
  • Customer satisfaction: With a quarter-billion customers to keep happy, Amazon pushes its employees to constantly enhance the customer experience. To meet the challenge, top-ranked employees embrace risk as well as leadership principles like “never settle” and “no task is beneath them.” In the company’s articles of faith (leadership principles that describe the way employees should act), the No. 1 focus is on pleasing customers to the nth degree. Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives employees to drive themselves—to the point of becoming “one with the system,” resulting in initiatives like lightning-quick delivery of any number of products to consumers. “The pressure to deliver far surpasses any other metric,” said Liz Pearce, a former project manager for Amazon, as quoted by the Times. “I would see people practically combust.”
  • Creativity: Amazon “strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things,” according to another Times source, this time from Amazon’s top recruiter Susan Harker. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging.” Within this context, any goal-oriented employee can make a significant contribution as far as Amazon is concerned—and so it pushes, using a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. Employees are said to be motivated by “thinking big and knowing that we haven’t scratched the surface on what’s out there to invent,” according to another quoted employee.

Yet, these three initiatives are not the purview of Amazon alone. Many companies—without resorting to the guerrilla tactics employed by Amazon—have found success in these areas. Take Google, for instance. The search engine giant encourages a culture where employees “feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions,” according to its website. Another top business today, Facebook, inspires a culture where “workers feel comfortable and at ease,” according to a Harvard Business Review story.

Many of us have experienced on-the-job stressors from associates that have led to counterproductive outbursts. People actually go into shock when they are treated unprofessionally (being undermined, bullied or left out), according to an article in About Money magazine titled “How to Deal With Difficult People at Work.” Certainly dealing with such abuses detracts from the work at hand, as the pain and anger can lead to irrational behavior.

In other words, perhaps Bezos’ principles (e.g., “harmony is often overvalued”) in play at Amazon are not the source of his company’s success. Rather, maybe the success has occurred in spite of the negative culture. For example, the Times quoted some workers as saying they have found niches in their offices where they feel protected, relying on shared kindnesses among kindred spirits—and, hopefully, they won’t be routed out by a zealous executive or Bezos himself.

Only time will tell, but for now Amazon continues on its mission to conquer the globe. As Pearce explained, “Amazon is driven by data. It will only change if the data says it must—when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense.”

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