Navigating the Work Culture Jungle

Posted on September 13, 2015.

After reading the New York Times article about Amazon’s culture, I was left with the impression that the working experience there would be somewhere between Lord Of The Flies and Oliver Twist.

If you aren’t familiar with either novel, Lord of the Flies is like Survivor except someone’s head ends up on a stick, and Oliver Twist tells the story of a young boy in 18th century London who is first employed in a workhouse and then by a thief. In both cases, he’s devalued and exploited…reportedly like the employees at Amazon. 

Intentionally or not, it appears as though Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have created a horrible work environment. Amazon’s management practices are not cutting-edge – they’re straight out of the Industrial Revolution. Back then, robber barons, those ultimate toxic leaders, excused their poor treatment of workers in the name of ambition, too.

The fact is, a hyper-competitive industry and a healthy work environment are not mutually exclusive.  Google, another data-conscious, cutting-edge technology company, also expects a lot of blood, sweat and tears from its staff. But in a recent Fortune magazine article, Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page is quoted as saying “It’s important that the company be a family, that people feel that they’re part of the company, and that the company is like a family to them.  When you treat people that way, you get better productivity.”

Google’s attitude may sound like basic good management, but unfortunately Amazon’s story is far from unusual. The good news is that the piece provides an opportunity for managers everywhere to take an honest look at their impact on office culture.

As a refresher, the following are a few basics on how not to create an Amazon-like culture:

  • If you ask a lot, give a lot: Bonuses and salary may be out of your control. But, as I’ve said before, recognizing an employee’s efforts – even just in the form of a note -  can go a long way.  There’s a fascinating, data-driven article about the importance of saying ‘Thank You’ to employees here.
  • Be human:  We spend more hours a day at work than we do at home, but that doesn’t make it our life.  Doctor’s appointments, health issues, family crises, weddings, and other important events occur in everyone’s lives, which means people need time off at inconvenient moments. When navigating these gray waters, strive for balance. Making folks feel guilty for asking for a long weekend or anxious about taking a few hours for the dentist is just as wrong as indulging every vacation request or constantly excusing poor performance due to problems at home.
  • There’s no such thing as “one size fits all”: Some people thrive on tough love. Others need a more holistic approach. Get the best out of your team by tailoring your management style to each individual and figuring out how keep them motivated.

What are your takeaways from the Amazon article? Share in the comments below!