I recently traveled from Kansas City to Bangalore, India, to conduct leadership development training. After a one-day delay on my flight, over 24 hours of traveling around the world, and glazed eyes from lack of sleep and in-flight movies, I finally made it to the customs line. As I was working my way through passport checks and security, I ended up in a line with two people who were clothed from head-to-toe with Amazon gear, or swag, as we call it these days. As the extroverted person that I am, I, tongue-in-cheek asked, “I don’t suppose you work for Amazon?” The two people, who had been traveling just as long as I had been, lit up. They both animatedly expressed how great a company Amazon is and how much they enjoy their work. The guy began to show off his Amazon apparel, including his shoes with the Amazon logo on the bottom, which he could only get in Europe.
Bad Place to Work
On August 15, 2015, the New York Times published an article entitled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace – The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld. The article revealed the stories of numerous former employees who had extremely poor work experiences at Amazon. One quote from the article read…
“Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
No, Really, It’s a Good Place
Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive at Amazon, quickly responded to the article. In a memo he sent to Amazon employees, published by GeekWire.com, Mr. Bezos writes…
The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. 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@example.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.
Amazon even sent out Senior Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs and former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, to counter the article in an interview on CBS This Morning. From my perspective, his message was…
- We’re not so bad.
- We’re just like all the other high tech companies.
- We don’t want to be seen as a bad place to work.
The external stories are flying about Amazon. It’s compelling drama. People can empathize with the New York Time’s article because we have all had miserable working experiences at some point due to poor leadership, unhealthy organizational culture, or work overload. People also want to believe Mr. Bezos because we like our Amazon Prime two-day shipping, streaming music, movies on demand; and we don’t want our shopping and entertainment joy to come at the expense of a ruthless company. I can personally connect to the two people with the Amazon swag I met in India who appeared to love their work.
According to Wiktionary, the slang definition for swag means “style, fashionable appearance or manner.” The original verb definition for swag is “to sway; to cause to sway.” When the two definitions of swag come together it is “the style and manner that causes sway.” Think about the three perspectives of Amazon I just shared. Each story has its own swag. Each story is also real. The question is, which one are you personally swayed towards believing?
As leaders that communicate stories, it is critical to understand two key principles of the external story that influence the swag of a story.
- You Can’t Control the Interpretation
Each person will determine how he or she wants to interpret the story based on personal history, experiences, knowledge, and emotions. As a leader, you cannot control how others will interpret what you are communicating. You can be authentic, clear, and passionate when sharing with others; however, others always bring their understanding and perspective as lenses that filter the message.
- Contradicting Stories Lead to Distrust
If two or more stories about the same experience contradict, the authenticity of both stories will be questioned. The contrasting Amazon stories are perfect examples of this. One story says, “This is a wonderful place to work.” The other story says, “This place stinks.” There is a disconnection to the observer. When this type of disconnect starts to happen, trust decreases, people take sides, and organizational reputations are tainted.
What should a leader do?
In the Amazon situation, I believe the leadership should recognize both perspectives are actually true. There are many people who love working for Amazon, and many people have had poor experiences. Leadership needs to empathize with the other perspective. If not, it leads to defensive and reactive responses. Thus, powerful leaders listen, understand, and see the truth in the other perspective. This is empathy. Then the leader clearly articulates the desired future state both in words and actions.
Amazon Grade: C-
Having read Mr. Bezos’s full memo at GeekWire.com and listened to Jay Carney’s interview on CBS This Morning, both lacked empathy, communicated in a defensive tone, and justified the current state. I would give them C- at this point in leading through this situation.
What do you think?