Amazon’s No Outlier: The Science Behind Broken Work Cultures

Oct 07, 2015 Published under Entrepreneurship and Management, Leadership

Research shows that the better our reasons for working, the better we work. And it isn’t just Amazon that should take note.

By Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi


In a matter of days, The New York Times‘s recent exposé of Amazon’s “bruising” workplace delivered a blow to the company’s reputation. Many have joined the chorus—at least one person cancelled their Prime subscription, while others, including current and past employees, have echoed CEO Jeff Bezos in defending the organization.

Along with with Netflix’s recent announcement of a full year of parental leave, the Amazon profile has breathed new life into the ongoing debate about workplace culture and what makes a great one.

The reality is that few organizations have figured out how to innovate, adapt, and create amazing things without burning their people out. Many of Amazon’s tech peers now suffer some of the same cultural handicaps as their Wall Street counterparts.

The quandary of how to create a healthy, high-performing culture affects many more companies than just Amazon. After decades without a deep understanding of how culture drives performance, most have arrived at a mix of good, bad, and ugly practices all jumbled together.

Take “stack ranking” for example, which requires managers to rank their team members on a bell curve. There’s a growing consensus that it breeds distrust and encourages sabotage within teams. The question that’s really eluded business leaders until now is why.

But the answer has been knocking around academia for decades. A mounting body of research suggests that why we work—or do anything, for that matter—impacts how well we work, a phenomenon that in our own research we’ve called “total motivation.”

We surveyed tens of thousands of people across different companies, industries, and sectors and consistently discovered that when their reasons for working are closely aligned with the work itself, their performance spikes. Otherwise, it suffers.

While all of us could list hundreds of unique reasons why we do virtually anything, our research shows most of them can be neatly grouped into six fundamental motives:

  1. Play
  2. Purpose
  3. Potential
  4. Emotional pressure
  5. Economic pressure
  6. Inertia

The first three boost performance, the latter destroy it. Amazon offers a great case study to witness almost all of them play out.

With continued innovations in publishing, retail, cloud computing, and logistics—not to mention a market capitalization that recently surpassed retail goliath Walmart—the company is clearly doing something right. We spoke to a former executive to learn about how Amazon’s culture taps into its employees’ direct motives to enable them to perform at such a high level.

1. Play

“Play” refers to enjoyment of the work itself—what employees actually do in their jobs; it doesn’t mean ping-pong breaks or office happy hours. Play is a force of learning, and as a result, it’s the defining feature of the most innovative organizations. “Amazonians” reportedly enjoy great freedom to experiment, create, and adapt rapidly. Amazon has found a number of ways to cut through the red tape that holds back disruptive thinking at other companies of its size. This freedom lets its employees experience a great deal of play, which our research shows—perhaps surprisingly—is the most powerful motivator of all.

2. Purpose

From the empty seat reserved at every executive meeting for the customer to Bezos personally reviewing customer complaints, Amazon’s “customer obsession” is built into its DNA. Meetings kick off with a discussion of complaints and product quality issues, and staff from across the organization are empowered to re-engineer any process it takes to improve the customer experience. Purpose is about being able to see and feel the direct outcome of your work. Companies typically place lots of emphasis on purpose—and it is powerful—but not nearly as great a motivator as play.

3. Potential

At Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle, employees are encouraged to push the envelope regardless of their rank or tenure. Drone delivery, the New York Times reports, was in part the brainchild of a low-level engineer. The company places bets on itself and its staff by making huge, continuous investments in their ideas, be they incremental process improvements or large-scale innovations. As a result, employees see a great opportunity to grow personally and do incredible work over time. In other words, they’re motivated by potential, the third and final direct motivator we identified.

By aligning so much of its culture to these three motives, Amazon has proved itself capable of staggering growth and innovation, even in the face of the performance-destroying practices commentators have seized on.

4. Emotional Pressure

And indeed, it’s true that many of those practices do harm performance. However you look at it, the ability to give anonymous feedback on your coworkers (read: admissible hearsay) is a form of emotional pressure. Unlike potential—being driven by our own desires—emotional pressure causes us to be driven by others’ expectations of us.

5. Economic Pressure

Even more destructive are stack ranking and Amazon’s approach to performance reviews. Both are forms of economic pressure that cause employees to fixate on avoiding punishment or earning a reward. Together, these forces stall collaboration, innovation, and other adaptive behaviors by shifting focus from the work towards self-preservation. A divided mind equals divided impact.

6. Inertia

For better or worse, the company’s light-speed pace, despite its equally rapid turnover, suggests it doesn’t suffer much from the last and most destructive of indirect motives, inertia, where the brute force of habit is the main thing driving an employee’s work. Unfortunately for many workers elsewhere, though, our research shows inertia is a pervasive problem.

Inevitably, the dust will soon settle around Amazon’s culture controversy, and the company will continue its unbridled growth. But to make sure it’s sustainable in the long term, Amazon will still need to begin to maximize direct motives—play, purpose, potential—while minimizing the indirect ones—emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. No matter how spectacularly the company has performed thus far, a toxic culture can begin to corrode it from within over time. Total motivation matters.

In one company we surveyed, salespeople with positive “total motivation” produced 28% more revenue than their more negatively motivated counterparts. What’s more, across the major industries in which we measured motives (airlines, retailers, cable companies, and banks), employees’ total motivation had a nearly straight-line correlation with customer-experience ratings.

Until now, we have mistaken symptoms of culture, like perks and work hours, for culture itself. Armed with a better understanding of how culture drives performance, Amazon, Netflix and every organization in between can start to design systems and processes that align with the actual work employees perform—not with the indirect motives that can drag both down together.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi are co-authors of Primed to Perform (due out October 6th from HarperCollins), which explores the counterintuitive science behind high-performing cultures. They are also cofounders of Vega Factor, a company building technology to help organizations of all sizes and across sectors create high-performing cultures.

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