A lot has been written about Amazon and Starbucks in the past couple of weeks. (Heck, I've written four articles myself. Last one for a while, I promise.)

Let's recap:

The New York Times published a scathing piece portraying Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, as a brutal employer that puts innovation and company performance above its people's well-being. The authors, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, painted a picture of long and late workdays, “unreasonably high” standards, and colleagues sending secret feedback to bosses that equated to career sabotage.

Two weeks later, amid the stock market chaos that was causing distress to millions across the globe, Starbucks's CEO, Howard Schultz, sent a memo to his entire company of 190,000 "partners" (Starbucks-speak for employees). It asked baristas to show special concern and sensitivity to their customers, and lavished praise on Starbucks workers for their recent accomplishments. The move was covered by multiple channels (including my take on Inc.), and received an extremely high amount of engagement--most of it positive.

Now, let me be the first to tell you: I've never worked at Starbucks or Amazon. I can't comment definitively on their internal cultures.

But I can look for clues from the outside. So I decided to compare the companies' values, according to their respective websites. (You can find Starbucks's values on its mission statement page, under the heading "Our Values." Amazon's are located on the Amazon.jobs website, under the title "Our Leadership Principles.")

True, these are simply written values. We can’t gauge how closely real life within the companies represents these principles. But the statements were obviously crafted by persons with a certain level of responsibility, and you can be sure they were reviewed, revised, and redrafted multiple times before getting approved. And I'm sure both Howard Schultz and Jeff Bezos have read these words many times.

Here's what I found

What stands out most at first is that Amazon's "leadership principles" (14 sections, 564 total words) are much longer than Starbucks' "values" (six lines, 78 total words).

So what does that mean? Different people will draw different conclusions, depending on the lens you're looking through. The Starbucks values would obviously be easier to remember. Maybe that's why "Amazonians" inscribe theirs on handy laminated cards.

Generally, I prefer the concept of less is more, especially when it comes to value statements.

Both companies claim to value customer service, innovation, growth, high performance, and responsibility/accountability. These are all great qualities when working to establish a culture of excellence.

Customers

However, I noticed a subtle difference between the two companies' views of customers.

The only time Starbucks mentions the customer directly, it says the following:

With our partners, our coffee and our customers at our core, we live these values: ...

And Amazon:

Customer Obsession: Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Did you notice the difference?

Starbucks puts customers on the same line of importance as partners (employees) and product. Amazon, by using the word obsess, paints an extreme picture of customer value. I won't go so far as to say that Amazon values its customers more than its employees (although Jeff Bezos has been reported to send employees emails forwarding customer complaints with a single character added: "?").

Starbucks, however, goes out of its way to place customers on the same level as its workers. This subconsciously sends the message that customers are important, but no more important than employees.

Communication and environment

Values one and three from Starbucks state the following:

  • Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
  • Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.

And here are some quotes from Amazon leadership principle No. 13, "Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit":

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.

Granted, Starbucks's frontline workers are in direct proximity to their customers, so “a culture of warmth and belonging” is arguably more important to their business model. And, as many Amazon supporters have asserted, part of the beauty of the company (and its reputation as an innovator) is its communication style--namely the fact that staff members speak up when needed, even if that means challenging someone above them in the hierarchy.

Performance

Starbucks value No. 4, along with the conclusion:

Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.

We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity.

And more quotes from Amazon:

Hire and Develop the Best: Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

Insist on the Highest Standards: Leaders have relentlessly high standards--many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes ...

Whoever wrote the statement, "We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity," deserves applause. In very few words, it promotes high performance while encouraging a balanced view.

And Amazon? Supporters will say that to completely disrupt retail (and even the internet) the way Amazon has requires a culture of relentless performance.

And that’s what I’m afraid of.

If you're constantly raising the bar, you'll have more and more people who fall down. It may be sustainable for a time (even a long time). But the problem that type of environment presents is that somewhere along the line, people lose empathy. It's about a perspective gap.

I believe the danger in Amazon's leadership principles is the potential to breed arrogance and self-promotion, and that's not healthy for anyone. Big egos lead to destructive behavior, without exception. And a culture that supports those types of personalities will eventually work in opposition to qualities such as empathy and compassion.

It may be great for disrupting, innovating, and making bank. But it's not great for society.

I admit, I’m a heavy Amazon user. I think it puts out a remarkable service. And there are a lot of good things about its leadership principles–such as the “Bias for Action” and an insistence on growth and self-improvement.

So here’s a chance to improve. I hope that Jeff Bezos and his team can take those recent discussions and provide a catalyst to look carefully at where Amazon is, where it's heading, and what needs fixing.

Who knows?

Maybe he can start with a phone call to Howard Schultz.

What do you think? Do you interpret Starbucks's and Amazon's value statements differently? Let me know in the comments section below.

Published on: Aug 26, 2015