Will You Buy What Amazon Is Selling (Its Employees)?

It’s 2.16am local time. I’ve been at my computer all day, stopping only for two meals and comfort breaks. An 80-hour week hasn’t been unheard of in my world.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I picked up this habit while working as a marketing consultant for brands very much like Amazon – in the fast-paced high tech industry, entrepreneurial by nature and/or hopelessly devoted to solving big problems. Several years on, this habit serves me well during crunch time in my own business, a boutique leadership development practice that helps leaders innovate from a state of inner peace.

Therein lies the rub

It’s been fascinating to witness the huge swath of pro- and anti-Amazon sentiment that has erupted since The New York Times’ scathing Aug 15th expose on Amazon’s questionable workplace culture and hiring practices. Amazonians (i.e. employees of the company), HR specialists, leadership consultants, work culture analysts and, of course, all manner of media outlets are in full-on hunting season – for more soundbites, scapegoats or solutions.

It’s hauntingly similar to a time last October when claws and fangs were unleashed over Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s misstep at a women’s leadership conference. He said what? How dare this happen? Oh, the inhumanity!

I’m with you. Sort of.

Because, as many highly-driven working professionals will tell you, sometimes we feel compelled to still be up at 2.16am. Our brain simply won’t shut down until it has solved the tantalizing problem at hand.

Obsessive? Perhaps. Unhealthy? Yes, over extended periods and without downtime to recover. (I’ve had my fair share of burnouts to know this firsthand.) Unavoidable? Sometimes, when the occasion and the ambition call for it.

What counts is that you choose this path intentionally, in a way that’s buoyed by equanimity, and aligned with your life goals and sense of success.

What also counts is whether you’re able to discern when the path becomes too toxic or unsustainable for your liking or well-being. To know when your manager has crossed the line from kind to cruel. And to then walk away from it all with soul and sanity intact.

Not just crying foul

Unlike the incident involving Satya Nadella, it was refreshing to see several nuanced, introspective and insightful perspectives emerge this time around. I especially applaud and appreciate the thoughtful pieces by ex-Amazonians Mehal Shah and David Lee. Their takes sync up well with my experiences in global, fast-growing Amazon-esque companies where autonomy and personal ownership are high, and where demonstrations of culture, empathy and reward can be wildly inconsistent across departments and managers.

There are also astute murmurings of how biased the New York Times piece might have been to begin with, and how it highlights the larger issue of click-bait journalism and our unquenchable thirst to consume “dirty laundry”.

Look at what we’ve started

Whatever the NYT reporters’ desires might have been to tarnish Amazon’s reputation with their piece, there was enough smoke from their fire to prompt an internal memo from Jeff Bezos to his staff, assuring them that “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.” And it has sparked some timely soul-searching from dozens of Amazonians in the public domain, and I’d wager thousands more behind closed doors.

As LinkedIn’s New Economy Editor Caroline Fairchild observed, Amazon is just one of many tech companies trying to find the right balance between constantly demanding aggressive innovation and keeping workers happy.

A possible way forward

As serendipity would have it, I happened to be reading Dale Partridge’s book ‘People Over Profit’ when this Amazon firestorm erupted. A tech entrepreneur in his own right (albeit at a much more modest scale than Jeff Bezos), Dale paints a compelling picture of the destructive cultural cycle that many companies struggle with, and offers some thought-provoking approaches to transcend our conventional efficiency- or profit-only motives.

If you’re curious about how this book can help you make sense of Amazon’s work culture dilemma (or your own), I invite you to check out my podcast episode about it.

Because, just like the Amazonians who are motivated to clock long hours for something they believe in, unless and until I learn that the NYT expose represents an unassailable norm instead of a series of unintentional or poorly-managed exceptions, I will continue to buy what Amazon is selling to us and its employees.

[The article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse, and was subsequently published in The Economic Times (India) ]

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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a peaceful leadership advocate, spiritual biographer and soul guide, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 inspired self-reinventions. She is a global leadership veteran, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

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