Amazon has been in existence for almost 20 years, and recently claimed to have 244 million active customers – those people who generally have valid credit cards on file. In 2014, the company had net sales of almost $89 billion, shipped goods to 185 countries, and employed almost 100,000 people. Customers consistently rate Amazon as Number 1 for satisfaction on online shopping surveys. And the company is continuing to grow rapidly.
By any measure, these are signs of a remarkably successful company. But a recent article in the New York Times suggested that the working culture at the company was having an adverse effect on its employees. Attrition rates are high, with average tenures of just one year. Less than 15% of employees have been at the company for more than five years. And those who stay feel highly pressured. People are expected to work long hours and to compete with each other to raise the performance bar. The article explained how staff said that ‘nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk’, and that their ‘work is never done, and is never good enough’.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, has personally established the company’s culture through a series of 10 ‘leadership principles’. These are all highly laudable in themselves, urging Amazonians to obsess about their customers, demonstrate ownership, insist on the highest standards, hire and develop the best, invent and simplify, as well as master every element of their business. His stated strategy of building a high quality meritocracy, where people and ideas compete and the best wins, is admirable and quite clearly the basis of his company’s success. But keeping people on their toes at all times relies on measuring everything about them. At Amazon, data are key. Employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems as well as each other in order to continually improve performance.
So what is going on? Let’s turn to recent advances in neuroscience for some insights. Neuroscience research has shown that all people’s thoughts, actions and feelings are underpinned by eight – just eight – emotions.
Five of the emotions are related to survival, alerting us to danger so that we can act to keep ourselves safe. These arefear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness. When we experience these emotions, we direct our energy away from delivering the job we’ve been asked to do, instead focussing on ensuring that we survive whatever danger it is that we have detected. Two of the emotions are related to attachment and growth, enabling us to flourish and give of our best; these are excitement and trust. The eighth emotion pushes us into either survival or attachment mode, and that issurprise: surprise/delight or surprise/horror.
In the New York Times article, the excitement of being part of the most innovative and successful internet-based company in the world is palpable, motivating many of those interviewed to work 80 hour weeks and deliver extraordinary results.
But alongside this, many talked about experiencing the survival emotions: fear of not performing well and losing a cherished job; anger and disgust about how vulnerable colleagues are treated; shame of knowing that treating people harshly is not right; sadness that ambitions or expectations have not been fulfilled in a company they want to do well in. All these people will have found it extraordinarily difficult to balance managing their survival emotions and performing well. It’s no wonder that many experienced burnout and left the company.
Little mention was made in the article however about trust. The use of large amounts of data to monitor and evaluate staff results in them feeling that they are not trusted. The high price placed on peers’ feedback to assess performance breaks down trust between teammates, creating ‘a river of intrigue and scheming’. And when trust is missing, your very survival can be threatened. It’s no wonder that, despite all the excitement, it’s fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadnessthat are common, and burnout is not far behind.
This is simply not sustainable. Encouraging trust to be at the core of his exceptional company will allow Jeff Bezos to ensure that Amazon and its staff will endure and succeed long into the future.
Dr. Sue Paterson
About the author: Sue Paterson is an oil and gas professional with over 30 years’ UK and international experience. She worked for Shell International in exploration, new business development and JV management, as well as talent management, leadership development, learning and recruitment. She has led teams in-country and across continents. In 2010 she set up her own oil and gas consultancy, and in 2012 became the Director of an international management consultancy. She is a qualified IOD Chartered Director, and has board experience in the oil, public and voluntary sectors.
Dr. Paterson is one of the authors who collaborated on ‘The Fear Free Organisation’. Launched in July 2015, The Fear-Free Organization is a pioneering new book that draws attention to the need for senior staff to appreciate how fear may be ruling their businesses and how this is affecting their teams, prohibiting the development of new ideas, creativity and unlimited potential. Available from £26.99 at Amazon, WH Smith, Waterstones, Blackwells and Foyles, John Smiths and via the Kogan Page website.