Amazon and the Problem of Modern Work Culture

What’s Really Going on at Amazon

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Bring out the best to get the most from employees.

I typically have to flip to the Business section of The New York Times to get to the news I can use–information about workplace culture and management practices—all relevant to my job as an organizational consultant and executive coach. Imagine my surprise to see a long feature article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” on the front page of the Sunday paper. What could possibly be so big that it made front page news? Drones that can talk? Books that read themselves?

What's the big surprise?

I started reading and didn’t get it. Business review meetings that are anxiety producing? Aren’t they all? Putting in long hours and then logging onto email at night? A common practice for many, unfortunately. Employees who are put on “performance review plans”? Again, no different than countless other large corporations. As the title suggested, some people flourish in this fast paced, hard-charging environment, while others do not.

A pointed rebuttal

After reading the Times article I did a little poking around and found Nick Ciubotariu’s LinkedIn Blog debunking many of the claims against Amazon. Nick heads up Infrastructure at Amazon. His experience over the last 18-months has been quite different. And, if the over 600 comments (at the time of my writing this post) was a Gallup poll, we would find employees who have both flourished and floundered at Amazon.  

Before you cheer or damn Amazon, consider this one sentence that grabbed my attention:

Thanks in part to its ability to extract the most from employees, Amazon is stronger than ever.” 

Extraction vs. Inspiration

Clients often ask my co-author, Senia Maymin, and me, “How can I get the most out of my people?” We suggest they ask themselves a somewhat different question—one that doesn’t conjure up images of sucking every last ounce of energy out of employees, such as, “How can I get people to perform at their best?”  

The answer is simple. By getting them to identify, cultivate and use their strengths every day. Improving productivity using a strengths-based approach results in an energy-producing work environment where employees want to do their very best and will go that extra mile to accomplish their work and more.

Negativity bias

It sounds simple enough, but in reality, focusing on strengths is very difficult for some people due to what psychologists call negativity bias. We are keen at finding fault. Many of us view the world through a deficit lens and are constantly asking questions such as: What’s missing? What isn’t right?  What needs fixing?  What are our gaps?

From the Times article, it would appear that Amazon may be more focused on finding fault (and pointing it out immediately and vocally) than in cultivating strengths. Then again, Amazon has an amazing success record, which indicated they are doing something right.

The danger here is that other companies eager to emulate Amazon’s success and looking for a quick fix may actually try to adopt some of the practices reported in the Times, even though the article was meant more as an exposé than a how-to. Amazon has been successful using the “squeeze-the-most-out-of" approach, but buyer—or job candidate—beware: Consider what work environment will bring out the best in you.


Margaret H. Greenberg is an organizational consultant and executive coach, and the co-author of Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. She is also the Live Happy Positive Work columnist with Senia Maymin. For more information about Margaret, visit ProfitFromThePositive.com and TheGreenbergGroup.org. Follow her on Twitter @profitbook and Facebook.com/ProfitFromThePositive.

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