Designing A Positive Company Culture

Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, summarily dismissed The New York Times’ mid-August portrait of his ecommerce powerhouse as “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard.” He passionately contends, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

He prefers to think of his hard-charging firm and the associated company culture as “friendly and intense.”  I think the conflict comes from the definition of “intense.” But the tales unfurled in the article are harrowing–including perceived pressure to work through cancer treatment, the aftermath of miscarriage, maternity/paternity leave, and significant personal crises. This bleak, draconian landscape is certainly incongruent with our view of the internet’s top tier and is troubling for those of us who empower business leaders for a living. In my practice, I have always advocated a culture of positive accountability and personal responsibility — but this is only effective within productive boundaries. Positive accountability does not mean personal condemnation. One Times follow-up article states of Amazon:

“ . . Its guidelines for behaviour include instructions to be ‘vocally self-critical,’ and some veterans wondered if the company would listen to the employees who had felt bruised.”

The real dialectic here is the profound cultural disconnect. Amazon versus Google or Bezos versus Page. It’s what I call the expectation gap regarding workplace culture―pure and simple. We’ve been trained to think that working at a high-powered, high-tech, high-potential company should deliver nirvana―the very description of “working at Google.” Free gourmet meals. Lavish benefits. In-office scooters. Juice bars. Onsite medical care facility. Paid sabbaticals. Unlimited sick days. Free dinner if you work late.  And up to twelve weeks of fully paid baby bonding time for new parents, regardless of gender (including dads, domestic partners, adoptive parents, and surrogate parents). Apparently, Google also provides $500 of “Baby Bonding Bucks” to all new parents to use during the first three months of their child’s life.

In stark contrast, some of the things former Amazon workers told the Times are extremely disturbing, but part of the righteous indignation may come from the realization that Amazon, a big tech company, is not in sync with the Google ideal.

But then, there are other tech darlings causing a ruckus these days, too. To help foster a culture of “freedom and responsibility,” Netflix is offering employees who are new parents unlimited paid leave for up to a year after a child’s birth or adoption.  This news was greeted with strong approval for its support of work-life balance in the cultural kudos department―not to mention its gesture toward helping America catch up to most other developed nations where paid time off for a new child is compulsory. But even with such a lavish offering, eyebrows began to elevate. Wouldn’t “defined time off” really be more effective—since workers might feel compelled to minimize actual time taken to prove they aren’t slackers for taking advantage of the generous policy? And how many Netflix employees would really take off 12 months, especially considering that most of the workers affected by the new policy are men?

Also, criticism immediately erupted over the fact the new policy applied only to “salaried, streaming employees” and excluded hourly workers in the company’s DVD distribution centres. Face it, there are no easy answers, and it’s complicated! Regardless, the Times article that exposed Amazon clearly hit a nerve. And the wound is still stinging!  The message is clear. At Amazon, performance is clearly the bottom line. Bezos apparently demands metrics-determined excellence from all his staff―and extracts it at just about any cost, culling the workers who can’t keep up. New hires are instructed to forget “poor habits” acquired at previous jobs. Model Amazon employees are deemed “Amabots.” Steady turnover is described as “purposeful Darwinism.” So, what can we learn from all this?

Perhaps there is a place, a middle ground of optimal productivity and fulfilment―somewhere between Page and Bezos . . . or “something completely different,” as Monty Python would say. But it’s about more than benefits. It starts with core values.  Begin with a culture of positive accountability―a   practice that is woven into your company culture―not a box that’s checked on a list or a task that’s marked “complete” in the latest project management portal.  I am talking about the fibre of your business―the heart and soul.  I discussed this in a post back in June. It’s about consciousness and positive expectations. The operative word here is “positive.” We are not talking about the toxic sabotage and rampant fear associated with a culture of criticism.

When you’re talking about culture, you’re talking about the heartbeat of your firm―your core company values. What makes your culture unique? Compelling? What differentiates you? And how does that inform the way your organization behaves in the world?  Culture is what gives you impact. Here are some reminders that will help you build a culture of positive accountability:

  • Structure your business around self-managing teams
  • Give teams significant tasks with mission-critical outcomes
  • Encourage the formation of informal teams
  • Listen (really)
  • Provide the support necessary

Above all, be deliberate about crafting a culture that reflects core company values and empowers employees. Your productive corporate culture doesn’t just happen. Think about implementing these and other “helping-first” culture tactics that will keep you avoid the self-sabotaging quagmires of that “bruising” culture . . . in the deep, dark jungle.

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