Just as The New York Times’ scathing indictment of Amazon and its workplace culture hit the internet earlier this month—before the print edition was even in many readers’ hands—Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos sent a memo to his employees in an effort to contain the impact. Perhaps admirably, he acknowledged the controversy and encouraged his employees “to give this . . . article a careful read.”
But that’s where his success as a leader in a moment of organizational culture crisis ends. Bezos’ attempt at damage control fails miserably precisely because it highlights the problems that created the vicious working environment that the Times describes: limited appreciation for the people delivering the company’s success; half-hearted attempts to avoid a toxic culture rather than cultivation of a healthy one; and leadership that distances itself from its people rather than connecting and empathizing with them.
What did Bezos get wildly wrong—and what should great leaders do in moments of cultural crisis?
Bezos tells his employees exactly one time what he wants. “I want you to escalate to HR.” That’s it. He says nothing about wanting a culture of empathy, of hard work and self-care, of belief in colleagues and co-workers, or of success via people. He has no problem telling his readers what they can do (“You can also email me directly”; “You can work anywhere you want”). Nor does he shy away from describing others’ interpretation of his leadership intent (“[The article] claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard”). But he never counters with a vision, an explanation of how he wants the Amazon culture to be, or a description of what his leadership intent really is. Instead, Amazon’s employees are left with a vivid reminder of what the Times says is wrong, assurance that their leader has never witnessed such poor behavior at his Amazon, and no words about what his Amazon actually is—or could be.
“The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” Bezos writes. “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.” I believe him. As the organization’s CEO and highest-paid employee, there are inevitably lots of experiences of working at Amazon to which Bezos is not privy. But culture is a form of compensation, and just as there is typically tremendous variation in salary across an organization, there is often similar disparity in experiences of workplace culture. Bezos might as well have said, “I don’t understand how people can suggest they don’t get paid enough here. I get paid plenty, and the people I interact with get paid plenty, too.”
The leader’s opportunity is always to support and drive employees by acknowledging, validating, and empathizing with the range of experiences within their organizational context. Indeed, organizations that are more identity-diverse (that is, those with greater variety in race, gender, sexual orientation, family structure, national origin, etc.) are typically rated by employees as being more empathetic—a clear weakness of the Amazon culture. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to convey empathy and to affirm the experiences of a wide range of Amazon employees, Bezos opts to invalidate them broadly: I don’t recognize it, so it’s not real. Even worse, he writes, “[O]ur tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero”—just as he’s in the midst of displaying a keen lack of empathy.
Bezos tells his employees plenty about what he thinks, but he never once expresses how he feels. There is a degree of vulnerability inherent in even a moderate display of emotion, but in a moment of crisis, that vulnerability helps employees to see the leader as a person and as one of them, rather than as an entity defending a perspective that they believe or have experienced to be false. Imagine the power of his words had Bezos written, “I felt angry/sad/caught off-guard/embarrassed when I read the Times article…,” followed by an explanation of his reaction and how he imagined others might’ve felt.
Vulnerability conveys humility, and leaders who display humility, fallibility, and resilience in the face of challenge are among the easiest for others to follow. Bezos instead opts to share another employee’s experience of how wonderful it is to work at Amazon—an experience that is no more or less likely to be true than those described by the Times. Rather than telling us how he feels, he attempts to provide a counter-argument—as though one (or many) positive experience(s) somehow make(s) up for one (or many) negative ones.
Leaders who react (or over-react) to every bit of noise in or about their organizational systems will quickly find their time entirely consumed by matters of culture or interpersonal gripes, real or imagined. It is therefore unnecessary and even inappropriate for such leaders to respond to every instance of challenge. Some moments demand action, however—and publication of a heavily-researched story that threatens to undermine the employer value proposition or the customer’s view of the organization would seem to be among those moments that require a CEO’s intervention. Aside from writing this letter, the only action Bezos suggests is that if, in fact, the Times’ description is real, well, the affected employees should leave—or else, they’re “crazy to stay.” (“I know I would leave,” he writes.) He indicates no interest in learning about the dynamics described in the article, learning more about his employees’ experiences at all levels of the organization, asking a team of leaders to better understand what makes Amazon great and what makes it challenging, or anything of the sort. Instead he hopes his employees “don’t recognize the company described” and that they’re “having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.” When it comes to cultivating a healthy, responsible, active, engaged organizational culture, though, hope is not a strategy for change.
There is no doubt that the Times’ description of the sometimes painful culture of Amazon is not representative of some, many, or perhaps even most employees’ experiences. And yet, in fewer than 300 words, Jeff Bezos has provided clearer first-hand evidence of a weak and challenged leadership culture than any external analysis could offer.