Skip to main content
Join Now

< Back to All

Culture trumps everything

October 31, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Joe DeSantis

Reportedly, the corporate culture at Amazon empowers individual employees and brutalizes them at the same time, all by design.

Brad Stone is a biographer of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO. In an article for Business Week, Mr. Stone reports that in his research for the book he encountered numerous Amazon employees who were “exhilarated” to “boast” that they had never before felt as empowered to “influence products and customers” as they did now. But at the same time they confessed to feeling “frustrated and overwhelmed” by the “grinding pace of work” and “adversarial culture.”  Positive feedback from managers comes only rarely if at all, and the same goes for promotions.

According to Stone, CEO Bezos believes strongly in the Darwinian principle that only the strongest should survive and thrive, and the weakest should be targeted for removal. He expects every new hire and every promotion to raise the level of talent in the organization, and he makes no bones about it.

One of the key components of Amazon’s culture is what is called the ”OLR” or Organization and Leadership Review. The OLR is a series of twice-a-year meetings held by department leaders in which they discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their subordinates. Promotions are decided on only at these meetings, and employees perceived to be the weakest are targeted for removal.

A critical element of this and other practices at Amazon is that it is transparent. All the employees know about it, which is arguably positive because it’s basic honesty. But, at least in Mr. Stone’s eyes, it is highly negative because it keeps all the employees on edge, knowing that their individual fates are being decided by a small group of men and women who have complete control over their destinies.

What’s more, argues Mr. Stone, the practice creates exactly the kind of internal politicking that its emphatic transparency is presumed to prevent. Employees, knowing how promotions and even their survival are determined, habitually lobby their bosses and other bosses who will participate in OLRs, in both appropriate and inappropriate ways, hoping to influence those discussions.

On the surface it would seem to be hardly the kind of culture designed to make Amazon an employer of choice.

Ruby Payne is an educator who has studied the cultural makeup of populations that live in poverty. Ms. Payne argues that everyone is born into either the culture of poverty, the culture of middle class, or the culture of wealth. Each person learns the behaviors expected of him or her in that culture—what she refers to as the culture’s “hidden rules”—automatically and without conscious effort. But to succeed in a culture other than one’s own, the person must make the conscious effort to learn the new culture’s “hidden rules” and put them into practice. The problem, especially for someone born into the culture of poverty, is not only that it takes much effort to learn the new rules, it takes greater effort—and no less personal courage—to throw off the culture one was born to.

However in Ms. Payne’s construct a person can, once thoroughly schooled in a new culture, thrive in both one’s birth culture and the new culture. Thus a person born into poverty can, having learned the rules of middle class, move easily enough between the two cultures, as one might do when going to work every day in one culture and living in another.

But what happens if the new culture is so extreme, so consuming, that it virtually obliterates some of the basic rules of one’s “home” culture? What happens if, as apparently is the case at Amazon, one must surrender some of one’s basic assumptions about self-determination in order to succeed in Amazon’s culture? Can an Amazon employee thrive at work under that culture’s (not-so) hidden rules that include the OLR, and thrive in his or her more conventional culture at home? Put another way, can an Amazon employee have it both ways? This is arguably the dilemma that every Amazon employee faces, and Ms. Payne’s construct may not have an answer for it.

Whatever you might think of Amazon’s culture, you cannot accuse it of not being transparent. Its rules are not hidden. It embraces the ethic of survival of the fittest. It is what it is, and what it demands of its employees may be more than some of them can provide. Amazon employees who do not embrace the same ethic may sooner or later have to decide what kind of culture they want to be part of.

Share On: