As social media continues to blow up over The New York Times expose on Amazon.com’s work culture, there are some interesting takeaways on two often-debated topics: engaging with the media and building a high-performance culture.
I confess to being shocked by the extent to which Amazon opted out of the Times article. While the company offered up several senior executives to comment, it chose not to participate in the development of the story line. Amazon could have provided information and context that would have led to a more balanced view of every issue the Times raised. (The same information and context that Jeff Bezos is now defensively spinning to any media outlet that will listen.) While the company wouldn’t have won on every point, it would have fared far better. Engaging in a clear and open dialog with reporters and candidly presenting your firm’s perspective – even sometimes admitting that mistakes were made and corrective action is being taken, delivers a far better outcome.
Interestingly, Amazon has a storied history of ignoring the press. For an example, one need look no farther than August of last year when Salon.com posted an article by Laura Miller entitled: “Amazon’s Awful War of Words, How an Ironfisted PR Strategy Went off the Rails.” The article concludes with: “It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Amazon, which for all its wealth and power has never bothered to develop the skills to participate in a public conversation about its role.” Sound like any law firms you know?
The second takeaway is those who believe creating a high-performance culture is “fluffy stuff,” not worthy of the legal industry’s tough-minded ethos, might want to re-think their position. Amazon is fully leveraging the science of human motivation (outlined in Daniel Pink’s bestselling business book, Drive) and backing it with “a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.”
The key elements of creating a high-performance culture are giving employees a strong sense of purpose, mastery and autonomy. These are the building blocks of Amazon’s work environment. Each Amazonian i) has a clear and specific purpose (provide an exceptional user experience); ii) fully comprehends the level of performance he or she must master; and iii) is given the autonomy to do whatever it takes to achieve a business goal. The remarkable combination of these three motivational elements with metrics and sophisticated feedback has driven Amazon’s performance through the stratosphere, recently outpacing Wal-Mart to become the most valuable retailer in the country with a market cap of nearly $250 billion.
What about money? Research out of MIT and other esteemed institutions demonstrates that people must be paid enough to take money off the table, but beyond that the payment (or the promise) of additional dollars does not enhance performance — in fact quite the reverse is true. While Amazon pays people well, it does not use money as a motivator.
Now Amazon may well have pushed the motivational model beyond its outer limits in some appalling ways. But clearly the model works – and firms have the option to design it in ways that balance high-performance and quality of life components. Latham is a shining example. It’s also worth noting that a large portion of Amazonians are Millennials, which might make one question over-wrought generalizations about their lack of work ethic.