Culture Controversy at Amazon, Decoded

Rita J. King
August 15, 2015

Amazon’s culture is designed to be competitive and fast-paced. It puts customers first and celebrates speed to market and rigorous assessment, but the cost to its employees may be high.

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace in The New York Times claims to document the company’s "experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions."

Science House has never received so many messages from clients on a Saturday. Colleagues, clients and friends alike pinged us to ask how the dynamics as described in the article relate to their own corporate cultures. We were planning to submit this report privately to our clients -- but then after spending the weekend working on it, James Jorasch and I decided to share it publicly.

For background, Science House analyzed the article through the prism of the Culture Map framework. Using Culture Map, we work with teams and organizations, including numerous Fortune 500 clients and other global companies, to visualize their current and target cultural dynamics, so they can be managed and transformed. We also work with startups, and Science House has early-stage investments in about a dozen science, technology and math related companies, so we understand company culture across the spectrum, and we also understand what happens to it as a company grows.

Our specialty is a simultaneous focus on business value (James is an inventor named on over 675 patents including those at the core of Priceline) and people (I’m a futurist who specializes in collaborative work). Culture can either be intentionally designed, or left to emerge by default. Jeff Bezos very deliberately designed the culture of Amazon, which permeates the entire organization. But is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Or is it more complicated than that?

Already, one Amazon employee, Nick Ciubotariu, has published a point-by-point rebuttal on LinkedIn, claiming that The New York Times piece is a “horribly misinformed piece of ‘journalism’ that slanders my company in public without merit.” Either way, there’s an opportunity here to explore some extremely important dynamics that lots of companies experience.

All teams and organizations have all seven Culture Map colors, but in different proportions.

A very quick overview for navigating the Culture Map colors:

  • Purple: Tribal us-against them mentality, rituals, tradition, unflinching belief in leader.
  • Red: Comfortable with chaos, act first, think later, shoot from the hip, get-it-done attitude.
  • Blue: Brings order and structure with reliable rules, processes and hierarchy.
  • Green: Humanity, camaraderie, consensus-driven, with emphasis on harmony above all.
  • Yellow: Curious, scientific, logical, rational, fact-based, data-driven and analytical.
  • Aqua: Big picture, systems thinking, with emphasis on the health of the organization first.

As with any culture, dominant aspects have their healthy and unhealthy sides, and it requires deep analysis and careful planning to make transitions from a current culture to a target state.

Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

In response, Marc Andreessen tweeted: “Well, given the number of workplaces that are designed for underachievers to feel good about themselves…”

There are people who love the pressure of performance and a measurable feeling of success, even if it comes at a price, which it usually does. On top of that, Amazon employees who do get burned out are taking marketable skills with them when they leave. But -- is it worth it?

Embracing Risk

At its best, some employees said, Amazon can feel like the Bezos vision come to life, a place willing to embrace risk and strengthen ideas by stress test. Employees often say their co-workers are the sharpest, most committed colleagues they have ever met, taking to heart instructions in the leadership principles like “never settle” and “no task is beneath them.”

Some of the revelations in the article seem extreme. Is it really possible that Amazon might treat sick employees as despicably as the article claims? When an associate got in touch to ask our opinion about the article today, he shared that a friend of his had to leave Amazon because she was pressured “relentlessly” while trying to deal with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Allegations of such inhumane treatment make it hard to focus on the content in the rest of the article, but there’s a huge amount of benefit in the exploration--not just in relation to Amazon, but also your own company.

The reality is, company culture is what people actually do, not what people say they want to do in the absence of tough challenges.

Company culture is often a patchwork of layers, pockets, silos and teams with their own microcultures. Below is a Culture Map of our interpretation of Amazon’s overall culture, based on the article. Different teams within the company will vary, and if the article is inaccurate, then the map could also change--but likely not by too much, as we focused on elements about Amazon that we believe to be true, including customer obsession, for example.

Typically we create our maps through intensive discovery periods and working directly with clients over time. What’s amazing about the map is it is basically a model of a startup--that Amazon has retained this culture with over 150,000 employees is astonishing. Any company that values speed to market and customer focus--even those with very different cultures in other areas--can learn a lot from this map. Step by step in the following post, we will explain why.

The Amazon map: obsessed with the customer, speed to market and data.

Italicized text below is material directly from the article in The New York Times. Emphasis in bold is ours.

Purple

A Purple company is run very much like a tribe. Employees look to their leaders for direction and have customs and rituals. As mentioned above, all teams and organizations have all seven colors, but are dominated by only a few of them. You’ll notice on Amazon’s map that Purple isn’t that large, even with the influence of Bezos taken into account. Why?

As outlined in The 14 Principles (billed on the Amazon website as “not just a pretty inspirational wall hanging” but “Principles that work hard, like we do”), Amazonians are expected to “work to disconfirm their beliefs,” which is not a Purple trait. Amazon’s culture also includes aggressive questioning of decisions from above. In a Purple organization, there’s much less critical thinking and questioning.

Some companies with a dominant Purple, by contrast, face a huge challenge when it comes to succession planning, because employees believe in a particular leader. Amazon would smart from the loss of Bezos’ brain, but they don’t have a classic “Purple Problem,” since it is not Bezos that employees are following so much as the system that he created, which could remain robustly in place without him at the helm.

  • Amazon has rules that are part of its daily language and rituals, used in hiring, cited at meetings and quoted in food-truck lines at lunchtime. Some Amazonians say they teach them to their children.

Red

Red is the defining color of Amazon. The company operates with fire in its belly, blasting through barriers and moving at high speed. Along the way, employees are encouraged to be candid with each other, looking to root out problems at the early stages before too many resources are wasted in pursuing them. Problematically, however, this candid talk often gets pushed to extremes, igniting into heated discussions that can result in name-calling.

  • The rivalries at Amazon extend beyond behind-the-back comments. Employees say that the Bezos ideal, a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” as the leadership principles note, has turned into a world of frequent combat.
  • Ideas are critiqued so harshly in meetings at times that some workers fear speaking up.
  • ...a senior developer, said he admired the customer focus but could not tolerate the hostile language used in many meetings, a comment echoed by many others.

At Science House, we have perceived a trend of hiring Red at large companies, to the point where people who aren’t naturally inclined in this direction start to manufacture aggressive behaviors fearing that they will otherwise be overlooked for promotions and other opportunities.

In our experience, companies err on the side of being either way too Red, to the point of senseless, borderline brutality, or way too Green, to the point of everybody smiling and nodding at meetings, knowing that an idea will waste a lot of money and time but not speaking up out of fear of hurting a colleague’s feelings. This isn’t because people are inherently evil or total pushovers. It’s because respectful candor is really hard--but it’s a problem well worth tackling.

A lot of our work focuses on helping the companies we serve strike a balance between candor and respect. It is possible to treat people like human beings and still encourage candor, but this sensitive skill doesn’t come easily to people and must be taught and practiced.

The dominance of Red means a fast moving organization, and one that has high expectations for getting things done. A clear downside to this is the often taxing workloads including “marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.” For many people, even at the most people-friendly companies, connectivity has proven to be a blessing and a curse.

Fast moving, however, means speed to market. While a dominant Red results in a challenging office environment, it allows a Red company to execute on a lot of projects.

  • However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians — members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch — described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.
  • In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Many employees are motivated by “thinking big and knowing that we haven’t scratched the surface on what’s out there to invent.”

When operations executive Stephenie Landry had the idea to rush goods to urban customers in under an hour, Amazon Prime Now was born. 111 days later, she was at work starting the new service. This suggests that Amazon’s legal department is in service of business value--not the other way around, as often tends to be the case. One of Amazon’s principles is a “bias for action,” that advises people to remember that since speed matters in business, the company values calculated risk-taking. Failure to take opportunity cost into account as a risk factor is a major challenge for many large companies.

“We’re trying to create those moments for customers where we’re solving a really practical need,” Ms. Landry said in The New York Times, “in this way that feels really futuristic and magical.”

Amazon runs like a giant startup. If the description about Amazon’s culture makes you cringe, startup life is most definitely NOT for you. And that doesn’t mean that it’s brutal, necessarily, but wait, yes it does, sometimes. Businesses don’t just start themselves.

An environment of candor doesn’t mean you should tolerate abuse, either from yourself toward other people, or from other people directed at you or another human being. We all face an opportunity to develop an unprecedented level of emotional maturity when it comes to this very difficult issue. If we can pull it off, the world will benefit and so will the companies that support it.

Blue

Blue, the color of order, structure, rules and hierarchy, is perhaps the most fascinating color for Amazon. While Bezos made it clear right from the start that he wanted to keep bureaucracy to a minimum, the company clearly relies on a host of rules to perform optimally. But here is where Amazon seems to differ from so many other large, process-laden organizations: The rules have been codified into simple guidelines that do not slow employees down.

The volume of Blue has been held to a light touch, but a lot of thinking has gone into the selection of the rules. The evidence of Bezos’ battle with bureaucracy is clear.

  • According to early executives and employees, Mr. Bezos was determined almost from the moment he founded Amazon in 1994 to resist the forces he thought sapped businesses over time — bureaucracy, profligate spending, lack of rigor.

But that didn’t mean that there were no rules. Bezos just kept those rules simple and clear.

  • As the company grew, he wanted to codify his ideas about the workplace, some of them proudly counterintuitive, into instructions simple enough for a new worker to understand, general enough to apply to the nearly limitless number of businesses he wanted to enter and stringent enough to stave off the mediocrity he feared.

Orange

Amazon exhibits every characteristic of an Orange organization; it is a dominant color on the organization’s map. They constantly seek out new opportunities, demonstrating an entrepreneurial mindset and an attendant comfort with risk. Amazon is focused stridently on the customer, combining this focus with data (see Yellow, below) to deeply understand market needs and prioritize the most valuable projects:

  • The focus is on relentless striving to please customers, or “customer obsession” (No. 1 of The 14 Principles), with words like “mission” used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.

Amazon takes Orange further than most large companies in the way it ranks and prioritizes its employees.

  • The workplace should be infused with transparency and precision about who is really achieving and who is not.

Those who perform well at Amazon can receive large bonuses and stock, creating an incentive system that rewards adding value. Many large companies have a huge amount of difficulty attracting, incentivizing and retaining Orange talent.

  • Compensation is considered competitive — successful mid-level managers can collect the equivalent of an extra salary from grants of a stock that has increased more than tenfold since 2008.

Green

The smallest color at Amazon, at least based on this article, is Green. Green is the color of camaraderie and harmony, of caring for coworkers and being empathetic. On the surface, it seems like every company should have a giant Green. People feel good about working in a very Green organization.

But like government workers, Green employees know that their jobs are safe, and they have very little incentive to rock the boat at all when they know they’ll be working with the same colleagues forever. If you hurt someone’s feelings in a Green group, they might hold a grudge for the next decade. Why bother?

  • Of all of his management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas. Instead, Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13).

While disagreement seems like a simple enough mandate, it really isn’t. It’s one of those “soft skills” that are really the most difficult. Some cultures foster an environment of candor, and some don’t. Those that foster candor usually fail to help people deliver it in a way that won’t alienate or hurt colleagues, or help people recover quickly and move on. Those environments that foster harmony above all else usually don’t know how to productively disagree.

Most large, legacy companies are Green, and actively encourage Green to develop, believing that if people are happy, workplace morale will improve. True morale, however, comes from understanding how your contribution is tied to the mission of the organization, and from being treated with genuine respect. This is not only possible, but desirable in any type of organization. In our experience, the friendliest companies can sometimes have the lowest morale because, as we once heard someone say, “we’re smiling while we sit here with shackles on our ankles, watching as our extinction event draws closer.”

As with all of the colors in the Culture Map system, there are healthy and unhealthy manifestations. In healthy doses, Green could cure some of the reported ills at Amazon, making it possible for people to both perform at a high level and to be human beings who get sick and tired sometimes. But Green gets tricky, because it feels good so people keep doing it, even when it’s reached unhealthy proportions. It’s easy to see why too much Red can be painful, but it’s much more difficult to really understand the implications of an unhealthy Green. On an individual level, people often like Green because it makes them feel comfortable. The problem with too much comfort, ironically, is that it presents little impetus for change. A huge Green organization, driven by a need for consensus, is slow to market. On a collective level, too much Green, just like too much of anything, isn’t healthy for the organization.

The reality is, it isn’t exactly respectful to smile and nod to someone’s face and then go into a private office and eviscerate them behind their back with another colleague, but in an unhealthy Green environment, that’s what happens. Modern times demand a Red-Green hybrid, in which people are respected through the well-timed, well-intended delivery of valuable candor, and at the same time, they are treated like human beings and genuinely respected.

Companies can both make a profit and care about the human beings who help them achieve it. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.

Yellow

Yellow is the color of logic, facts, and a scientific way of thinking. The dominance of Yellow at Amazon is astonishing in its power. Amazon tracks everything that they can, and uses the resulting insights to guide the business.

  • “Data creates a lot of clarity around decision-making,” said Sean Boyle, who runs the finance division of Amazon Web Services. “Data is incredibly liberating.”
  • To prod employees, Amazon has a powerful lever: more data than any retail operation in history. Its perpetual flow of real-time, ultra detailed metrics allows the company to measure nearly everything its customers do: what they put in their shopping carts, but do not buy; when readers reach the “abandon point” in a Kindle book; and what they will stream based on previous purchases. It can also tell when engineers are not building pages that load quickly enough, or when a vendor manager does not have enough gardening gloves in stock.

What is perhaps more surprising, however, is the extent to which Amazon uses data to manage the workforce.

  • But in its offices, Amazon uses 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. “The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,” said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer.
  • It has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.

This is a critical point. Many of our clients face the same crossroads. Once data is available, you can’t get that genie back in the bottle. It’s easy to cringe at Amazon’s seemingly dehumanizing approach to measurement, but most companies would do the same in a heartbeat if they could, and are quickly learning how.

  • Explanations like “we’re not totally sure” or “I’ll get back to you” are not acceptable, many employees said. Some managers sometimes dismissed such responses as “stupid” or told workers to “just stop it.”

We’ve had colleagues share that in their interactions with Amazon, they’ve heard people call each other names, both at senior levels, and at the vendor level. It comes across as inexcusably immature. That poor impulse control that runs rampant internally also bleeds out. Maybe Amazon thinks that this doesn’t matter. They’re wrong. But they can fix the problem. If Nick, the Amazon employee who rebutted the article that appeared in The New York Times, is right, maybe they are fixing it. Good.

Aqua

Bezos has always had a strong vision of where he is heading with the company, so Aqua presents in the map as a medium color. It isn’t dominant because it isn’t practiced by most people most of the time the way Red, Orange and Yellow are, but it is important. Relentless focus on performance is myopic in a way that doesn’t comport with pure Aqua, which would sacrifice some performance in the short-term to gain sustainable competitive advantage in the long run. Aqua’s primary concern is on the health of the organization.

Bezos considers maintaining the culture as a way to maintain the commitment to his original vision for the company.

  • As the company has grown, Mr. Bezos has become more committed to his original ideas, viewing them in almost moral terms, those who have worked closely with him say. “My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture,” Mr. Bezos said last year.

While the Bezos vision for the company culture has been clear, he has also been clear about where he did not want the company heading.

  • Mr. Bezos was addressing a meeting in 2003 when he turned in the direction of Microsoft, across the water from Seattle, and said he didn’t want Amazon to become “a country club.” If Amazon becomes like Microsoft, “we would die,” Mr. Bezos added.

In trying to prevent this reality from taking shape, Bezos has fostered the kind of atmosphere that may prevent it from emerging at all.

Conclusion

Amazon’s culture is deliberately designed to enable a competitive, fast-paced atmosphere that puts customers first and celebrates speed to market, rigorous assessment of ideas and people. The cost to people may be extremely high in situations where normal productivity gets impacted, such as by illness, but this can and should be fixed. This dynamic cuts both ways--the skills employees learn at Amazon that make them very attractive to other employers who enjoy the benefit of the company’s work ethic within their own organizations.

Amazon, like many companies facing the same realities, needs to develop the maturity that enables a focus on profit and people at the same time. This isn’t a utopian fantasy. It’s a necessity, for reasons stated here and many more that go far beyond the scope of this post. A company is a living, breathing entity. It's more than a pile of optimizable cogs -- it's how the machine sings when they cogs fit together.

As more large companies learn how to use data (and automation) to drive business, the reality faced by Amazon employees will be a real challenge for everyone. This issue needs to be contextualized into the way organizations are redesigned, starting now. Among our clients, especially those with a genuine focus on people, this is an extremely pervasive and complicated issue.

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