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The 4 Leadership Principles that Could Undermine Amazon

A scathing article about Amazon was recently published in the New York Times describing disturbing allegations about the retailer’s abusive work environment. Lending significant credibility to the serious questions raised about the company’s culture were corroborating interviews from many of the more than 100 current or previous Amazon employees who agreed to speak on record. Stories of unfair practices abound, from unjust co-worker complaints sent directly to a colleague’s boss, to an individual who was chastised for not being able to work nights and weekends because she was caring for her dying father. The $250 billion retailer is eclipsing its competition for sure, but it may be compromising its own leadership principles in the process of doing so.

Despite Amazon’s reputation for hiring exceptional people, its current operating environment may result in it being a net exporter of talent to rival organizations. As employees resign because they eschew the Amazon work culture, or as others are culled out of the company in periodic Organization Level Reviews, where force-ranked employees at the bottom of the list are let go, the level of attrition at Amazon is among the highest in the Fortune 500, with median tenure at the company at just one year. While Amazon will refute these numbers by saying their turnover is in line with the industry, the noise in the system suggests that something else is at play here, especially when company policy requires that employees refund portions of sign-on bonuses or relocation expenses if they resign early.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and among the world’s wealthiest people, has a reputation for demanding excellence and innovation, and promotes a meritocracy where the best ideas and the best people win. He also operates with an analytical, data-driven and confrontational mindset that is not for the faint hearted, which is in part what has made his business ventures so successful. Amazonians know, through a series of Leadership Principles defined by Bezos and his team, that customer obsession is a job prerequisite, and invention and simplification are the nutrients that feed the entire organization. But what happens when leaders take these principles to an extreme? What kind of culture is created when the principles cause the meritocracy Bezos desires to turn into a playground for muckraking? Of the 14 Leadership Principles that Amazon holds dear, at least four of them are at the core what could become the company’s Achilles heel. Let’s take a look:

The leadership behaviors described by some former employees dishonors Principle 11, which is to “Earn Trust”. To do so, the principle states that leaders should “listen attentively, speak candidly and treat others respectfully.” It’s hard to believe that the leader who placed a woman on a performance improvement plan once she returned to work after giving birth to a stillborn child was demonstrating respect, let alone compassion, anymore than the leader who did the same with a woman recovering from breast cancer because her personal difficulties interfered with fulfilling her work goals. These employees were on notice that being fired was a real possibility. Whether or not they deserved to be notified their jobs were in jeopardy, the optics couldn’t be worse with the rest of the organization. The code message to co-workers is, “Don’t get sick and by all means don’t let anyone know if you do. Keep working at your usual pace at all costs because you are dispensable.” It establishes a culture of fear, not a culture of creativity.

Another Principle, “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit” obligates Amazonians to “respectfully challenge decisions” with which they disagree. But the company’s focus on giving criticism has been implemented such an extreme by some leaders, that employees are afraid to speak up; they’ve witnessed co-workers who did so chided to the point of tears, grown men included. In a culture where employees are reluctant to speak up, the organization is likely to make decisions without full information, decisions it is likely to regret. The recent leadership debacle at Toshiba is a prime example.

Dive Deep, principle #12, demands that leaders work at all levels with a detail orientation that includes frequent auditing, and a bias towards questioning when the numbers and anecdotal evidence aren’t aligned. It’s a principle that encourages a focus on metrics and embraces the Amazon manifesto for perfection, but it risks leaders ignoring the motivation and meaning required for employees to thrive, especially when combined with other principles. Because the company runs performance improvement algorithms that allow leaders to know just about everything associated with staff performance, the push is always to beat the numbers: fill more orders than you did last week; deliver the product to the customer sooner; launch new products to market way before anyone thought is was possible to do so. These are worthy goals for any organization striving to dominate the market and are best accomplished a nimble and entrepreneurial workforce. However, the Deep Dive principle taken to an extreme is a particular threat when combined with principle # 9, Frugality.

“Frugality” charges leaders to “accomplish more with less” since “there are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense” and “constraints breed resourcefulness”. It may prompt leaders to overlook employee exhaustion and burnout, to bully employees into delivering more to the company while sacrificing family and personal lives, and to ignore the reality of a workload that far exceeds what is reasonably possible for the existing staff to accomplish. This, coupled with a forced ranking system in an environment where employees can give unjust feedback to a colleague’s boss, creates an almost ‘Game of Thrones’ environment, where those interviewed describe behind-the-scenes plotting and scheming to throw co-workers ‘under the bus.’ It’s no wonder that individuals with sufficient ego strength naturally select out of such an environment. They possess boundaries that limit the degree of corporate servitude in which they’ll engage and a sufficient level of internally derived self-worth. But, when they leave, they take along with them all of the organizational wisdom and history they’ve acquired…and the competitor that hires them benefits.

What Amazon employees describe is the antithesis of the steps a leader would take to encourage flourishing and thriving in the workforce. The company can do a much better job of fostering a healthy work culture that still delivers results by creating an environment of harmony and respect, while maintaining the energetic edge required for creativity. Accomplishing this goes way beyond drafting new Leadership Principles and entails much more than Jeff Bezos sending a message to employees inviting them to let him know directly when leaders are behaving poorly. What it will require is that Amazon obsesses as much about its culture as it does about its customers.

This article by Alaina Love was originally posted in Smartbrief on Leadership in August, 2015.