Corporate Culture

How to Have Amazon's High-Performance Culture Without the Backstabbing

How to Have Amazon's High-Performance Culture Without the Backstabbing
Image credit: CJ Sorg | Flickr
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In what some are calling an exposé, the New York Times offered a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the corporate culture of one of the tech world’s most visible and versatile players. While many of the article’s anecdotes appear damning, Amazon’s core tenets sound right. They lay the groundwork for a dynamic, challenging environment where the standard is high and “business as usual” is not in the vocabulary. That’s something many entrepreneurs (including myself) likely relate to and strive for in our own businesses.  

I’ve never stepped foot inside Amazon or talked to an employee myself so I don’t wish to make sweeping assertions about what’s “wrong” with their culture based on a few anecdotes or testimonials from former employees. In addition to its criticisms, the article notes high rewards associated with those who thrive in Amazon’s environment. It must work well for some people, or the company wouldn’t be as large or as successful as it is.

But anytime fear is a driving force for employees, it’s worth considering the health of a company’s culture. Is it possible to have the big ideas and stimulating environment without a cutthroat mentality? I say it is.

Related: Amazon's Jeff Bezos Opens Line of Communication with Employees In Wake of Damning Article About Company Culture

Below are two ways to set a high standard while fostering mutual loyalty and respect:

1. Foster a team environment.

I’ve long written about how important it is to work collaboratively on your organization’s how. To really engage everyone on your team, it’s essential to build a culture that encourages both individual ownership and working toward a goal together (rather than systematically pitting workers against each other). Do you want to ensure decisions won’t be driven purely by self-interest? Then don’t be overly aggressive in culling the ranks of your workforce, thereby requiring those who want to stay to prove themselves superior to colleagues who won’t make the cut.

Every employee should be measured against the standard (which should absolutely be high) rather than against each other. Do your job as a leader and you won’t have to fire people. You’ll either coach people to reach the standard or you’ll coach them out (and to a better fit).

Reality television shows with only one winner provide examples of what happens when competitiveness is artificially dialed up. Alliances are formed (and broken) on a week-by-week basis, and decisions are driven by consideration of what’s best for the team only insofar as the team is needed—finally, it’s self-preservation that carries the day.

There are costs to instilling such a cutthroat mentality, both in-house and once employees leave. In Amazon’s case, “[r]ecruiters…say that other businesses are sometimes cautious about bringing in Amazon workers, because they have been trained to be so combative. The derisive local nickname for Amazon employees is ‘Amholes’—pugnacious and work-obsessed.” 

Related: 5 Signs Your Corporate Culture is Doomed

2. Be demanding, driven and human.

Some of the article’s anecdotes are striking enough to make one stop and consider the cost of winning in business. If, as former employees have alleged, such life circumstances as having a child, navigating a life-threatening illness or providing compassionate care for a dying loved one become grounds for negative performance reviews and cause for termination, it’s worth asking ourselves if a line has been crossed.

Value your people, not just their contributions to the bottom line. Ironically, the more you do, the more likely they are to be high-value contributors as well. When you build loyalty on your team, you have more engaged employees. According to Gallup, engaged employees are more likely to go above and beyond. I’d rather have people go above and beyond because they are stimulated and inspired to be their best than because they are driven by fear.

I am a huge proponent of pushing limits and creating a bad ass, driven work environment. And I’m all for inspiring people to be the best they can be. But I’m also one of the crazy ones who believes it’s possible to do that without creating amholes and a-holes. 

Related: Why We Shouldn't Hate on Amazon's Culture