Last weekend, The New York Times published an article describing working conditions for white-collar employees at Amazon. While some of what the article described--like long work hours--is par for the course at high-tech companies, there were some elements that are like slow poison, growing more toxic the longer they continue.
First and foremost: It’s a well-proven, scientific fact that exhausted, overworked people make bad decisions and big mistakes.
In the Times article, the long hours and grueling work pace were described as contributing to the company’s success. However, unless Amazon has changed the basic psychological makeup of human beings (unlikely), their environment is generating poor decisions that need revisiting (more work) and errors that need redoing (more work).
So while the company may be successful, it’s almost undoubtedly paying a huge productivity tax. It apparently never occurs to Amazon management that the need to constantly work long hours might be the result of poor planning rather than something worth bragging about.
Second, exhausted, overworked people are seldom innovative, at least not for very long. In the Times article, the example is given of hitting a wall, and the only Amazonian solution is to “climb over it.” In real life, though, innovators see the wall coming a long way off and steer around it--before it becomes an obstacle. That’s impossible when you’re so hectic that you can’t see straight.
I’ve worked with many highly creative innovators, and while they often work hard, they’re smart enough to know when more effort becomes counterproductive. Great athletes are the same way: They train incredibly hard, but they know enough to stop when further effort might result in an injury.
Finally, and most important, Amazon’s culture is supremely political. The company uses stack-ranking, a management fad that drives managers to sacrifice team members in order to meet firing quotas. The company also encourages employees to secretly rat each other out, much like citizens in communist dictatorships.
Such practices favor managers and employees who can play politics and drives out creative people (engineers especially) who lack those skills. As anyone who has worked in a big company can attest, internal politics often create agendas that are at cross-purposes with the goals of the company.
You see, I’ve heard this story before. The Times’s description of Amazon is almost exactly the same as articles published about Microsoft’s culture, back when Microsoft seemed unbeatable. Similar articles--complete with almost the same horror stories--were written about DEC’s culture, right before they missed the PC revolution.
It could be argued, as my fellow Inc.com columnist Suzanne Lucas does, that Amazon’s success justifies its excess. What I see, however, is a company that’s squandering talent and very possibly sacrificing its future in the process.