In 1950, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made a film called Rashomon, which showed the same crime being reported in different ways by different characters. What's now called the Rashomon effect describes why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable, as it's a product of the witness's limitations or agenda. And it's that limitation that raises questions about last week's piece on Amazon in The New York Times that has essentially wrapped corporate crime-scene tape around many aspects of the e-commerce giant's office culture.
The article could be read as an expos, or it could be another example of the Rashomon effect.
The authors spoke to more than 100 current and former Amazonians, out of tens of thousands in Seattle. Not surprisingly, the ones who'd left had the most negative things to say. They told of backbiting, a lack of empathy and a relentless pressure to put work before everything else.
In response, CEO Jeff Bezos said he didn't recognize the "dystopian" workplace described, and that if it actually was like that, he would quit, too. He urged employees to report anything bordering on heartless treatment.
What would you expect the guy to say? He must have been mortified. Reports on the demanding pace at Amazon fulfillment centers are widespread; this was something different.
But Bezos has my sympathy.
Finding and retaining a group of people who can turn ideas into reality is no easy task. If imprecise guidelines or an offhand remark are misinterpreted by managers, it becomes that much harder. Maybe Bezos jokingly said, "Sleep is for wimps," and somebody who was eager-to-please but missed the intent heard: "Expect an answer at 1 a.m."
What The New York Times describes is accurate for those who were quoted at least. Undoubtedly there are managers there who have their own agendas and don't play fair. People are people, and Amazon is its own highly competitive world. Even if Bezos was unaware, he is responsible.
Effective business management, like effective military management, relies on what's called commander's intent. The head of the operation must present the company's goals in a way that leaves little or no room for misinterpretation down the line. Subordinates' understanding must be thorough enough that they're able to adapt on their own when things don't go as planned, because things often don't go as planned. The NYT article describes, to me, a workplace where the commander's intent has become distorted.
Bezos' focus is on developing technology, but for now at least, he's employing human beings. Some will find fulfillment as "Amabots"; others won't. Some will become "Amholes"; others won't. Everybody's different, and not everybody is suited to Amazon's work environment, whether it's put under a harsh or a flattering spotlight.
Even The New York Times' public editor was critical of the "anecdotal" nature of last week's article, which is another way of saying it's the Rashomon effect. But if Bezos truly was disturbed by what he read, then his "prime" focus should be on distilling and communicating his expectations so that they can't be misunderstood. It might take a little longer than the 23 minutes it took to deliver one Elsa doll, but it will be worth it.