The Empathy Lesson Jeff Bezos' Amazon Desperately Needs

The pace of technology is moving so swiftly that we are at risk of our humanity becoming subservient to efficiency.

There is a famous Zen story of a man walking along a trail who sees a horse and rider racing at full pelt toward him. As they shoot past, the man calls out, “Where are you going in such a hurry?” The rider turns in his saddle and shouts back, “I have no idea, ask the horse.”

This is the perfect metaphor for the age we live in, as the pace of technology is moving so swiftly that we are at risk of our humanity becoming subservient to efficiency.

There were two events that reminded me of this in the last few days. The first was the dysfunctional workplace culture uncovered at Amazon by The New York Times -- where a failure to integrate technology with compassion has helped create what my colleague Emily Peck called a Hobbesian culture that is nasty, brutish and short.

The second was a meeting with Bill Drayton, the founder and CEO of social enterprise network Ashoka. He reminded me that in our increasingly complex and fast-moving world, the most important characteristic for any leader is empathy. Take note, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO.

The reason this is so important is that we are facing an existential crisis resulting from the many-headed hydras of climate change, resource scarcity, acute inequality and ecosystem collapse.

To confront these issues and to effectively harness technological advances, individuals, businesses, institutions and civil society need to work in collaboration.

The last thing we need now is to maintain our current brutish form of capitalism that rewards individualism and the ability to create money, over and above social cohesion and a duty of care.

However you look at it, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a justification for the multimillion-dollar bonuses of bankers and CEOs in contrast to the low pay of those who spend their professional lives caring for the weak and marginalized.

We forget at our peril that it is up to each and every one of us to get in touch with our deep well of empathy because the world we create outside of ourselves is merely an external representation of our inner psychology.

Empathy is not found through money and success, which tend to separate us and generate the fear of loss, but through touching and transcending our suffering.

We can all in our honest moments relate to the saying that the extent we can understand someone else’s pain is the extent we have been prepared to touch our own.

This is something that Bezos would do well do to take on board. Winning has clearly been an important part of his life, whether it was becoming the valedictorian of his class, setting up his first business in school or becoming the youngest vice president at Wall Street investment firm D.E. Shaw.

By contrast, I would point to John Fullerton, the founder of the American-based Capital Institute who walked away from a successful 20-year career on Wall Street because he touched his own despair at the part he was playing in propping up the greedy self-interest of the financial markets. 

“I was searching for how to make sense of a world that I could no longer explain to my children,” writes Fullerton, who was a managing director at JP Morgan. “At some level, I was also searching for my own purpose in it all.”  

He concurs with Drayton on the need for empathy: “We must overcome our fears. But we must also transcend our ideological divides and our false separation from one another and from our environment. Climate change, ever-rising inequality, and even the despair that fuels radical fundamentalism are all symptoms of a deeply flawed economic ideology that requires that we shift to a more effective, systemic way of thinking about our next economy. That systemic shift most certainly includes the transformation of the financial system to embrace a meaningful purpose in service of a regenerative world.”

It would be great for Bezos to get together with Fullerton over a drink and see what they make of each other close up. But more relevant would be if Bezos were courageous enough to sit and listen deeply to the many employees who say they have suffered at the hands of the culture he has created, rather than dismiss them out of hand. 

After the Times' story, Bezos wrote to employees to say that he deplored what he called the piece's portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace” and added that "I don’t recognize this Amazon.” But this is to bury his head in the ground.

An act of empathy would do him and his company far more good than adding another few billion dollars to his estimated $50 billion fortune, or announcing another increase in market share.

This is something the CEO of consumer goods giant Unilever understands all too well. When I spoke to Paul Polman about balancing purpose and profits, he told me that "nobody will remember that I was the CEO of Unilever when profits went up by 20 percent, or when the [revenue] went up by 40 percent. I would like to be remembered for leaving the place a little bit better than I found it." 

With Zen stories, one always ends up at the beginning, so all I would say is to think what you would say the next time someone shouts out to you asking where you are heading as you hurtle along, eyes glued to your latest smartphone.