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Amazon: has Bezos created a corporate detention camp?

When some of  your employees start referring to themselves as robots something is badly wrong. If the content of the New York Times article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”, is even partly accurate Jeff Bezos and his management team have their work cut out to re-correct for the long term. Given Amazon’s drive to introduce more robots in to its workplaces and its 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems – a startup that used robots to pick products at distribution centres – you have to wonder whether it is all part of Bezos’ grand plan. Bezos needs to quickly clarify and rebrand his companies human resource policies to ensure his staff that they will not just become cogs in his mechanized automated retail delivery processes as he ruthlessly drives for greater productivity.

I recently spoke with former Canadian Tire Acceptance CEO, Jos Wintermans about the mistake many CEOs make when looking to improve productivity

How an organization behaves is the sum of the structure, processes, policies and management practices employees find themselves in.  This starts with senior management. Amazon’s current culture is a fundamental failure of management.

In successful companies, employees are held accountable to behave in a constructive and contributive way within the communities they serve.  Employees who join these companies grow in confidence and self worth living a life that will benefit the communities they live in.  At Amazon this appears to have broken down.  Sure, there are many employees who will love this environment but overall the fanatical pursuit of productivity is coming at a cost that could derail the company in the long term.  Working there sounds dystopian.  The description in the article does not make it a friendly, kind or supportive place to work – unless you are a robot.  Bezos and his senior management team have created a detention camp with rules that pitch employees against each other and processes that enable them to undermine and deep six each other!  Does he truly understand the systemic impact of all his policies, and the behaviour it elicits from his employees in the workplace. I think not

The company’s “Anytime Feedback Tool”, for example, encourages employees to give positive feedback to peers but also enables what, according to the New York Times, “workers called a river of intrigue and scheming – making quiet pacts to bury the same person at once or praise another lavishly”. Its initial intent may have been positive – but it was also naïve, and sets up a system that erodes and undermines trust.  It is company-sponsored victimization.  Reading the New York Times article also suggests that meetings have become “gladatorial” – the sword of axe now being replaced by data wielded in an aggressive and relentless way to push your idea through to victory.

Alan Huggins, former CEO of Lowes Canada, and Vice President of International Operations at Lowes in the US explains that the CEO plays an important role in the creation of company culture

Effective management provides failsafes to ensure that this kind of behaviour doesn’t happen. The management systems, processes and practices at Amazon appear to create an environment for it to flourish.

While Amazon has been hugely successful on paper my worry would be it has built a culture, and a way of doing business, that is dangerously short-sighted when it comes to its employees.  With this implacable pursuit of productivity – who working at Amazon can feel they have any long term security? Most managers lack the skill to implement this strategy effectively and will continually find themselves in a Catch 22: letting employees go they think are rather good, and unable explain the reasons for their firing other than the “system made me do it”.

Mr Bezos is in danger of creating a meat-grinding machine full of highly capable employees who fail due to the system they find themselves in. Some of the policies described in the article and and the behaviours they have manifested would make the STASI proud. That is not the recipe for a successful company long-term – whether or not your employees are robots.

Mr Bezos needs to step back and do the following:

  • Understand that it is his work alone to build an environment where all his employees can do their best work.  He does not delegate the creation of this strategy to HR.  It is the most important work he has on his plate at this time given the huge number of employees he now has and success of his company depends on how effectively he leverages this asset
  • Understand that CEO management requires him to integrate, and align the  structure, processes and policies he needs to put in place in his workplace to create the positive behaviour he wants.
  • Identify and root out all the processes and policies that presently propagate distrustful and manipulative behaviour amongst employees
  • Build a management team around him who understand his revised people strategy and value its philosophy and importance of implementation
  • Be very thoughtful about productivity enhancements and their impact on the larger workforce
  • Never forget humans are not extensions of machines.  Amazon has an accountability to better the communities his employees work in

Jeff Bezos’ pursuit of ever increasing productivity and innovation balanced with high morale and employee growth is not a new challenge.  But if he is going to be really successful he needs to make it his own work and not delegate it to lieutenants armed with data and HR – as many of his peers do.

About the author

Nick Forrest has spent more than 30 years working with senior executives of large organizations helping them better manage large groups of people.  He is a keen scholar of military leaders and an avid collector of Penguin Classic paperback books.

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