What is sustainable and more humane, is the model which prizes the human experience at work and not just the work produced; a model where work cultures are not about cut-throat perfectionism but rather, about flexibility and inclusivity
Not so long ago, a New York Times story described in (at times exhausting!) detail, the high performance, highly competitive culture at Amazon. It painted a picture of an organizational culture where dissent, ruthless efficiency and innovation are rewarded, sometimes at the cost of employees’ personal workstyle and work-life balance. The implied justification for this culture (created and sustained deliberately, make no mistake) was success, measured by profitability, growth and an incredibly innovative, disruptive market-changing value proposition. Yet, the media furor the story and its follow-ups created indicates that organizational success in itself is insufficient justification for breeding a work culture where employees feel disenfranchised.
It therefore begs the question, what is the role of organizational culture in the modern (and future) organization? Isn’t organizational culture that glue that binds employees together, that teaches values and engages employees, that at the very least, makes for a fun day at work and at its most impactful, can actually serve as a critical competitive advantage? Or is it just management jargon for a concept whose days are numbered?
Amazon’s approach (as described in the story at least) would suggest the latter. It flies in the face of current research around the importance of constructive work cultures in engaging and retaining top talent. The NYT story, followed by its founder Jeff Bezos’ response to it, led to all the debate it did because of two main reasons:
1. It raises questions about what organizational cultures, norms and systems will prevail in the brave new world of work tomorrow
2. It raises questions about the role of leadership in not just creating a company, but also creating, sustaining – and changing if needed – its organizational culture
Let us tackle that first reason here. Research (and hopefully, our own experiences!) has shown us that organizational culture is a key ingredient to the employee work experience. But the Amazon model, taken to its extreme, might then have us question our current assumptions about the importance of constructive cultures where collaboration, integrity and achievement are valued over competition, power, aggression and perfectionism. In fact, that extreme model might even suggest that constructive cultures are unnecessary, employees are dispensable and temporary cogs in the machine and the main business of business is business! That is, as long as employees are willing to put in a few years working ruthless hours, striving to near perfectionistic ideals, innovating wildly and achieving mad amounts of success, they can quit or get fired when they get burnt out. It’s a crude survival-of-the-fittest model. There’s no place or necessity, in such a worldview, for a constructive culture to engage and retain employees if you’re not out to engage and retain employees but merely to get them to achieve great things for your company (and perhaps themselves) in a compressed period of time. It’s a bold new model of work but unfortunately, not one that is sustainable.
What is sustainable and more humane, is the model which prizes the human experience at work and not just the work produced; a model where work cultures are not about cut-throat perfectionism but rather, about flexibility and inclusivity. In such a model organizations reap rewards not just in monetary terms but also for their employees (engagement, well-being, organizational commitment), their communities (satisfied customers, improved ecosystems), and the organizations themselves. In fact, if organizations don’t pay attention to the employee experience, and to retaining talent (especially diverse talent), that talent will vote with their feet and go to the more inclusive employer who does care.
Speaking of caring brings us to reason #2 the Amazon story took the world by storm. Organizational cultures are created first and foremost by founders, and then sustained and nurtured by organizational leaders and employees down the line. That means that in order to improve the employee experience, leaders need to create it – or at least be aware of it. Jeff Bezos’s response indicated that he was at worst, a terribly out of touch leader who was caught unawares when news of the organizational culture that is currently in place at his company got out, and at best, a leader who was admitting that something was wrong and was asking for help in fixing it. Neither is very comforting for his employees!
The fact that he responded to the story itself is news, and is perhaps the first step in turning things around. Leaders must care about their organization’s culture – not just because it might one day make news if things turn ugly, but because it could be a terrific tool in tapping into top talent. And that makes organizational cultures an absolute necessity, and not just obscure management jargon.