“Conflict Brings Innovation”

The NY Times had an article today about the work culture at Amazon, a modern day sweat-shop.  Workers describe 80+ hour workweeks and a culture of expecting people to answer emails immediately, regardless of the time they are sent.  The article reports that workers who get ill, or have children or sick family members are routinely forced out and told their performance is lacking as their priority is clearly not work.  What struck me was not that these conditions exist, but that Amazon’s leadership seems proud of these conditions and believes they help to make Amazon more competitive.

The ultimate goal is to become an “Amabot”–an employee who “has become one with the system” and, apparently, no longer has human needs beyond reaching higher heights for the company.

One of the core beliefs is that “conflict brings innovation” so workers are encouraged to be highly and vocally critical of each other.  Workers are also encouraged to rat each other out by reporting fellow employees who aren’t working hard enough.  Not surprisingly, Amazon has few women in top leadership positions—as the Lord of the Flies environment hardly seems one in which women (or men) will flourish—and seems one where sexism  goes unchecked. The anonymous reporting system appears to be full of abuses and targeting of employees who aren’t liked for whatever reason.

After reading the stories, I was struck by how much the internal working environment at Amazon seems similar to stories of living under repressive communist regimes.  The big exceptions are that employees can leave and don’t risk imprisonment or death.  But, the daily oppression and fear seems to me to be so counterproductive to what Amazon claims to want:  innovation.

I also question the belief that conflict brings innovation—especially when the conflict is unnecessary and seems almost artificially created.  Workplaces don’t have to ratchet up the conflict levels (as Amazon seems to be proudly doing) to get innovation.  Amazon’s response is employees who rave about the exhilarating environment and how they pushed themselves to heights they didn’t know they could get to.  Of course, not everyone is so happy.  Amazon also suffers high turn-over rates.

The workers who rave about the brutal working environment remind me of some of my law students who claim that my “on-call” system in my first year criminal law class deprives them of fear and therefore they don’t work as hard.  Every year a few students tell me that they don’t learn as much as they would if I did a random system so they wouldn’t know in advance if they were going to be called on.  I am told, “I wasn’t scared coming into your class on the days I wasn’t on-call so I didn’t always do the reading.”  Which is a reminder that some folks do seem to need fear to motivate them.  Which may be why Amazon has a steady stream of employees.  These are the folks who think that fear, anxiety, stress, long working hours, and conflict are what make them get better.

I am in what I suspect is a much larger group of people who finds fear the opposite of motivating and find it instead helps to shut down innovative and creative thinking.  It seems much of Silicon Valley agrees–as the workplaces at Google and Facebook seem far removed from the conflict values at Amazon.

5 thoughts on ““Conflict Brings Innovation””

  1. Cynthia, thanks for flagging this article.

    Ann and I find Amazon to be incredibly useful but the article makes me wonder if I should continue to patronize it. Unfortunately, I don’t know of anything that is as useful.

    There were several quotes in the article that were very disturbing. For example, one former employee was quoting as saying,“Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

    Indeed, the article recounted a story of the founder, Jeff Bezos, who, at the age of 10, reportedly reduced his grandmother to tears by calculating that every puff of a cigarette took off a few minutes of her life and said, “You’ve taken nine years off your life!”

    Bezos wrote a response to his employees and the NYT rebutting the article. Unfortunately, media – including the prestigious NYT – have strong incentives to hype conflict, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the article provided a distorted view, exaggerating the problems. Hard to know.

  2. John,

    Thanks for the link to Bezos’ response. What I thought was interesting is that he didn’t say that the core beliefs expressed in the article (such as “conflict brings innovation”) were incorrect. His response struck me as the kind of response that I often hear from highly competitive folks who find fear motivating–they tend to be very dismissive of how the rest of us experience that kind of environment.

    I also agree–I use Amazon a lot and the article and weak response from Bezos make me wonder if I should. But, as with you, there just isn’t another company that would easily fill the void.

    Bezos encouraged Amazon employees who had bad experiences to contact him directly. I am curious how full his email is about now.

  3. I have lost confidence in the news reporting of the New York Times and so I don’t know what to believe about Amazon. I assume that the article that Cynthia referred to includes some elements of truth, but I don’t know how much and whether the overall thrust is accurate.

    The Times ran a follow-up story saying that the original story stirred debate but this article seemed to stack the deck by prominently including comments to support the thesis of the original article.

    The NYT public editor published a serious critique, though it seemed as if even she pulled her punches. Even so, she noted, for example, that the original article created a serious misimpression by omitting from the story about Bezos causing his grandmother to cry that he told the story to illustrate that this was the wrong thing to do.

    Unfortunately, it seems as if the NYT had an agenda to tell a sensational story and slanted the original story and perhaps the follow-up article.

    This comes on the heels of the seriously inaccurate NYT article about the alleged criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and the editors’ defensive reaction to criticism.

    I wonder if the NYT editors feel that they need to hype sensationalized (and unfair) stories to compete in the market.

    In any case, it is very sad and it is hard for me to know what to believe about Amazon and its organizational culture about conflict.

  4. Thanks John, and yes, another story that has complexity written out of the original.

    I still accept the basic story: Amazon is a highly competitive workplace and that environment doesn’t suit a high number of workers (which is why they have such high turnover).

    It is a shame that the larger story of the pressure that workplaces routinely put on workers–and the stress on competition over cooperation that is very common–will get lost in the details of what is actually happening in Amazon. I think it is less about Amazon and more about our societal ideas about what makes people work hard and deliver–and the all too frequent conviction that it is competition and fear.

    Over the summer I visited with some friends in Sweden. They are not Swedish. One had started a new job as in-house counsel for a large (and highly successful) Swedish company. Mid-morning there was a coffee break. On my friend’s first day, she didn’t go to the coffee break. Her boss stopped in later and explained that unless there was an emergency, she was expected to join for the coffee break, and to join colleagues for lunch, and to do an afternoon coffee break.

    The workplace valued building good relations between employees and expected everyone to spend time every day socializing. I expect most Americans (and many other nationalities) would find the Swedish work day that my friend is experiencing to be frustrating because, as she put it, “I can’t get my work done with all these breaks.”

    However, it is unfortunate that the fall-out to the NY Times article about Amazon is to get lost in the details about how bad it is to work there rather than asking how common the work-at-all-costs fear and competition mentality is in the United States and whether it does, in fact, breed more innovation and success.

  5. An unfortunate aspect of the NYT reporting is that it distracts attention from the issue it is reporting on, namely the working conditions at employers like Amazon.

    I can imagine that the general description would be accurate for a number of businesses, though I don’t know enough about Amazon or other employers to have an informed opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.