Jeff Bezos’ Biggest Fear and Other Thoughts on the NYT’s Amazon Expose

Several people asked for my thoughts on the recent New York Times’ expose of Amazon Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace as well as Jeff Bezos’ response: Jeff Bezos has responded to a report slamming Amazon’s working conditions.

Some brief background about me: I worked at Amazon for 3.5 years before leaving to start a company. While there, I convened a group of Christians to study the Theology of Technology. We compared the Amazon Leadership Principles with Scripture and some of the notes from our discussions can be found here: Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian.

First Impressions

My first impression after reading the article was a mixture of amusement and compassion. Amusement because I actually have fond memories of working with some of the people quoted in the article. Compassion because although I knew their work was tough, I did not know how bad their experience was.

I found Amazon to be a place with excellent leadership principles, which unfortunately are not always lived up to. The work will absorb your life if you let it and you must set your own work/life boundaries (not balance!) because the company will not set them for you.

When you’ve decided on your boundaries and uphold them, you can enjoy the work instead of being controlled by it–even if it means the politics (and other factors outside of your control) work against you.

Bezos’ Biggest Fear

“What do you think is the biggest risk to Amazon in the next 5 years?”

I heard this question at every all-hands meeting since I started, so I figured that Jeff had it planted every single time. Here is a paraphrase of what I remember to be his response:

That we will value social cohesion instead of truth. Truth seeking is exhausting, finding the right answer, compromising with someone is easier…seeking the truth and the right answer is critical, don’t fall victim to the social cohesion mentality to compromise for pragmatic reasons.

So what does Jeff think is the biggest threat to Amazon? Internal politics. He is afraid that the company will succumb to the game of power rather than submitting to the power of the truth. People will get tired of figuring out what is true and choose to do what is convenient.

Unsurprisingly, the terrible stories outlined in the New York Times article seem less due to Amazon’s data-driven culture and largely due to corporate politics and bad management.

Instead of using their power to serve those under them as good leaders do, managers and individual contributors can “manage up” by trying to please their bosses for their own protection and advancement. Those bosses in turn are trying to please their bosses and so on and so forth. Rigor, reviews, goals, spreadsheets and data in this political system turn into tools for enforcing social cohesion rather than seeking truth.

For anyone with experience in office politics, this isn’t unique to Amazon. Whether people are being “nice” or “rigorous”, when everyone is looking out only for their own interests, it does “create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”

It sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes 5:9:

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

It’s Time for a Deep Dive

Amazon has a “king committed to cultivated fields,” which unsurprisingly is accompanied by instances of oppression. The company is doing exceptionally well and from his vantage point, Jeff Bezos is, “having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”

He takes the right first step by inviting his employees to report any signs of oppression: “But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at [email protected] Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

However, I know from experience that most people who are undergoing oppression are too shy or afraid to take him up on his invitation. Many victims will prefer leaving to causing a ruckus or fighting those in power over them. Many will belittle problems as minor offenses or personal differences. Many will commiserate with peers, try to give feedback to a skip-level and then give up when nothing changes.

I have seen the HR process work for a friend who spoke up and got transferred to a different team. I have seen the performance improvement process abused by a manager to get rid of a competent developer. I have seen a friend get quickly promoted twice and given a large raise in a short time. I have a seen another friend exhausted and burnt out after several years of poor leadership. I have seen managers make data-driven decisions as well as expedient ones.

Practically speaking, if you find a great manager and team at Amazon, I think you will have a blast there. If you want to be a great manager and/or leader by using your power to serve others, I think many smart people will want to work with you.

But at a higher level, I think that Jeff needs to go further to ensure his entire company embodies the culture of joyful invention he experiences everyday. God has given him immense authority and holds him responsible to use it justly and kindly for the good of those under his authority.

With such a large workforce and many layers of management, mismanagement and politics are inevitable. By applying the Dive Deep leadership principle to get at the truth about why these dysfunctions are happening in his company and correcting the errors, he will not only protect his company from the threat of subtly valuing social cohesion over truth, but he would also embody a new principle:

Do What’s Right: Leaders do what is right even when it means sacrificing their own interests. They use their power to serve others instead of using others for their own ends. They commend those who do likewise and correct those who do not.