The Amazon Fiasco: 4 Questions All Leaders Should Ask Themselves

Day 3 - Danbo arrived today
Day 3 - Danbo arrived today

In case you missed it, the internet was ablaze this weekend with talks about Amazon's work culture. The New York Times published a scathing expose of life in the Seattle company's headquarters, which prompted passionate debate on both sides and even rebuttals from employees. The article painted a picture of a brutal, soul-crushing, data-driven, relentless culture -- one which forced a woman to work the day after a stillbirth and encouraged employees to backstab coworkers with anonymous feedback.

While it's easy to simply give in to our lizard brain and either reactively grumble and moan or instinctively defend hard-charging corporate culture, moments like these provide a chance for us to reflect on our own leadership values. Here are a few questions we should be asking ourselves in light of the debate on Amazon's culture:

Do the ends justify the means?

The Times' piece tells the story of a project manager who says that the organizational culture is necessary to accomplish 'futuristic and magical' things. In this case, she is referring to being able to deliver a Disney doll in 23 minutes. Impressive, yes. But worth sacrificing one's personal life and emotional health for?

Jeff Bezos' hard-charging approach makes perfect sense in a teleological, 'the ends justifies the means' worldview. In other words, it shouldn't matter how we get there, as long as we do.

Great leaders, though, should take this moment to reflect both on whether there is inherent value in a working style irrespective of output, as well as asking, honestly, if these actually are ends worth sacrificing means for.

Do we stand for more than profit?

I'm hugely inspired by, which -- in addition to its outwardly social mission -- also considers itself a social enterprise in how it cares for its employees through empowering policies. They've approached corporate culture as a meta issue: only by being impact driven for its own employees can they create impact in the world. By making their employees happier and healthier -- for instance, market-leading parental leave, ample vacation time, and incentives to learn new languages -- they believe they are having an impact on the world beyond the actual work of the company.

As a leader, do you want your impact to simply be the output of your organization, or do you want your organization, itself -- the way you work, the values your team puts into action, and the standard you set for treating other people -- to be part of a better world?

Do we value all employees?

To be sure, our visceral reaction to the New York Times piece resonates with white-collar workers who either are themselves, or have friends, in similarly destructive work environments.

But we've also known for a while now how poorly Amazon treats its factory workers, as well: limiting rest and breaks; actively opposing unemployment compensation; and warehouses so hot that people were fainting on the job. All organizations have the opportunity, every single day, to treat each and every employee -- from CEO to mail-clerk -- with respect. Would our own organizations pass this test?

As leaders, do we value all employees equally? Are we just as outraged by terrible workplace conditions for blue-collar workers as white-collar ones? And if not, why not?

What 'everyday leadership' action can I take if this bothers me?

The truth is Amazon is a wildly successful company, and has surpassed Walmart as the world's largest retailer. And Bezos -- the results and data-driven leader he is -- will never change his leadership style unless Wall Street dictates it. This means that if one is appalled by this corporate culture, the only way to affect change is to change our own habits.

I'm the first to admit that I'm addicted to Amazon's offerings: it's my first search if I want to buy anything from a shower head to a banana slicer; I'm hooked by its free Amazon Prime two-day shipping; and I am huge advocate of, its audiobooks subsidiary.

We all face an opportunity, with every purchase, to commit a small act of everyday leadership. If Amazon doesn't resonate with our values, then it's incumbent on us to put our money where our mouth is. It's easy to sit back in our armchair and decry Amazon's work culture; it takes true leadership -- even if it's just leading oneself -- to make sure our actions reflect our values.

And so, with each Amazon purchase, we must ask ourselves: is this purchase in line with my leadership values?

Now, I invite you to take a moment to think about what you've learned about the way Amazon treats its workers, and reflect on what lessons you might take away from it for your own leadership journey.


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Creative Commons Image from Daniel Lee.