by Gael O’Brien

Amazon Logo_FeatureCriticisms about Amazon’s work culture offer teachable moments beyond how the company may choose to benefit. They are a reminder of the toxic impact leaders can have when they put results ahead of any consideration for the people delivering them.

Two key issues apparently impacting Amazon could happen anywhere if left unchecked:

  • Understanding that strengths carried to excess become weaknesses – whether it is “insisting on the highest standards,” or any business or leadership principle. This happens when perspective is skewed so the aggregate of the standards don’t create balance and people don’t feel supported in succeeding; and
  • Recognizing the unwritten policies of how managers interpret leaders’ expectations can dehumanize a workplace, stripping it of empathy and dignity which harms employees and undermines the job they are capable of doing on behalf of customers.

Amazon’s mission “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online…” inspires. The constant innovation and challenge offer meaningful work and financial rewards. However if both are set against the backdrop of a punishing work environment, the mission is compromised. Whether working conditions represent the workplace of the past or future, Amazon, at 180,000 employees, has the second highest turnover rate in the Fortune 500.

After several months of discussions with Amazon and interviews with 100 past and current employees, the New York Times published a story in August 2015 describing a “burn and churn,” pressure-driven, “bruising workplace,” where bosses expectations were never satisfied and jobs were threatened if illness or family encroached on work.

In response, CEO Jeff Bezos told employees the “callous management” described didn’t reflect the company he knew, inviting them to contact him or HR if there were other examples because “our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.” Amazon publicly took issue with several points in the story. The Times defended its reporting.

A former employee writing for the Guardian pointed out that criticisms of Amazon’s “brutal workplace”  have been public for years without sticking because Amazon is so successful: “…we believe in the marketplace more than we believe in human beings,” he wrote.

Another former employee, writing on LinkedIn, was more hopeful about the potential for Amazon’s culture. She indicated she’d also worked at Zappos (bought by Amazon in 2009), where empathy is ingrained in the culture. “What happens,” she asked, “when you give the tin man a heart?” She continued: “I truly believe a culture such as this — a culture that embraces the head and the heart, values data as much as empathy, marrying technology and humanity — is feasible.”

I asked Donna Hicks, an expert in conflict resolution and author of Dignity, how a culture can cultivate empathy. “Real connection and empathy require face-to-face interactions,” she says “and a context for connection that is nurtured and supported by the culture.” Creating a culture of dignity in an organization “requires opportunities to have encounters with people that are genuine and dignity supporting” adds Hicks, an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs  at Harvard University.

In any company culture, where empathy is considered lacking, building off existing strengths in relationships is a way to begin to deepen awareness of, and connection to, others. Some Amazon employees, as reported in the Times article, indicated nurturing bosses protected them from the culture. Identifying and bringing together bosses who support their employees’ success in doing outstanding work, value them as multi-dimensional people and offer feedback in a respectful manner can help Bezos and HR better understand the empathy gap at Amazon. And what to do about it.

If bosses are using harsher and narrower interpretations of company policy (regarding feedback or attitudes toward hours, vacation, illness or family crises etc.) out of a misguided loyalty to keep “insisting on the highest standards,” Bezos and HR need to step in. Tone at the top can clarify when zealousness becomes “callous” and the consequences for crossing the line. Robots don’t have low esteem, but often high-achieving people do; it can lead them to work harder, especially when triggered by bosses making them feel that what they do is never enough. Bosses who take advantage of this are abusive.

The responsibilities of dignity are double sided, Hicks points out. “If employees continue to perform when they are exhausted, overextended and missing out on other aspects of their life, they are essentially betraying their own dignity,” she says. For some, it may feel easier to leave and find another job. However, at a time when Amazon is being confronted with gaps in its culture, it may be more possible to raise constructive discussions about what an employee might need. Rather than lacking in the leadership principles of “ownership,” “customer obsession,” or even dedication, an employee taking responsibility to recharge can demonstrate the highest form of respect for Amazon’s mission.

It is difficult to see how a company passionate about “customer obsession” won’t give more attention to its own culture – finding ways to listen and respond to those who make customer satisfaction possible and sustainable. After all, every tin man deserves a heart.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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