Mr. Bezos, do you hear the call for creative leadership?

Madlen Popignatova 17
September 25th, 2018
Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Mr. Bezos, do you hear the call for creative leadership?

Amazon is not just one of the world’s best-performing businesses, it’s also one of the most dangerous places to work in the United States.

 

Warehouse workers have described a work environment predicated on fear of missing productivity targets, where urinating in bottles for fear of taking breaks, routine security checks during lunch breaks, and being punished for being sick, are the norm. What’s more, these workers are paid such meager wages that many of them have to live on food stamps.

 

Meanwhile, Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world.

How did this happen?

According to Mandy Chooi, a Core Faculty member at THNK School of Creative Leadership, company culture can come about in one of two ways. One is as a result of how people work together for a long time and become settled in their ways of working with each other. The second way is to be actively conscious and purposeful about choosing the kind of culture and environment you want.

When it comes to Amazon, Mandy says, “I believe Amazon is very aware of their culture. It is a culture that the founder prefers and it has generated very good business results, so it’s going to continue. Mr. Bezos has made no secret of the fact that he wants the internal environment to always be competitive. He wants people to strive towards extremely high standards. And if you want those things, the natural consequences are the news you’ve been hearing about — what people on the outside call a very brutal, very Hunger Games-esque environment.”

Thanks to investigative journalists and activists, Amazon’s working conditions have become an open secret. Between 2015 and 2018, ambulances were called to British Amazon warehouses 600 times. In the U.S., an Amazon warehouse worker described an “awful smell” coming from warehouse trash cans after coworkers urinated in them because they were scared of taking too much time to go to the bathroom and miss their daily targets.

creative leadership

Warehouse workers have described a work environment predicated on fear of missing productivity targets, where urinating in bottles for fear of taking breaks, routine security checks during lunch breaks, and being punished for being sick, are the norm.

Can it change?

There are two critical leadership concepts which harbor these conditions when misapplied. One is avoiding a culture that is solely based on scarcity, and the other is facing up to the real responsibilities of leadership.

 

Scarcity versus abundance

A culture of scarcity versus abundance is one that lends itself to the hunger games-type atmosphere at Amazon.

“It’s clear that the culture in Amazon is a culture of scarcity. There’s not enough for everybody to win and standards are incredibly high and they get higher every day, so the whole environment is one of scarcity,” Mandy explains.

When people are made to feel that they live in extreme scarcity — that there’s not enough to go around — they make bad decisions. This is because scarcity causes tunnel vision, which narrows our focus and impedes our ability to make smart decisions.

If you give two different groups of people the same choices — people who are similarly impoverished but who are made to feel that they have some abundance, that they don’t have to be in a zero-sum game — they make better decisions than people who feel they are in a clear situation of scarcity.

creative leadership
When people are made to feel that they live in extreme scarcity — that there’s not enough to go around — they make bad decisions. #scarcity #abundance #leadership Click To Tweet

If your employees are always operating from a place of scarcity, many of their decisions are made out of fear or self-preservation. As a leader, ask yourself: “What decisions could my employees have made that would have been more beneficial to my organization, but because of fear and tunnel vision, they didn’t make those decisions?”

You might be missing out on innovative solutions that maintain and surpass targets because you are not fostering a healthy work environment.

To create an environment of abundance, Mandy suggests making space and time for people to try new things and purposely be outside of their comfort zone: “Amazon does have a reputation for allowing experimentation. They are known for asking their teams to fail fast, fail cheap, and move on, which is not a bad way to work…But I don’t know if they do enough to create time and space for people to step outside of what they normally do, with no negative consequences.”

One way for leaders to experience the effects of their company culture is to swap roles, putting employees in a role they don’t normally play. People who tend to assume a leadership role should play followers and people who tend to be followers play the leaders. Putting executives on the floor to experience the environments they’ve created will help them understand their company on a deeper level than simply judging outcomes of projects or numbers on targets. Giving employees the opportunities to make decisions and to be accountable but still allowed to learn from the consequences, leads to levels of boldness, creativity, and ownership that are beyond what typically comes from their usual roles.

 

The true responsibilities of leadership

Secondly, on a broader note, behemoth companies need to set a standard of leadership responsibility for their executives, including the founders, the CEO, and the board. Particularly in a world where of the top 100 economies, 69 are companies, we cannot just ask government or NGOs to take this responsibility.

Mandy Chooi
Mandy Chooi
Faculty
THNK School of Creative Leadership
"When you control $1 trillion of the world’s resources, my opinion is you have to have some responsibility. You can’t just say ‘My job is to make money.’ You can’t just say ‘My job is to increase share price.’ That’s just plain wrong, and societally tone deaf on a colossal level. We as a society must demand more from business leaders, especially leaders of really huge businesses?"

It can be argued that Jeff Bezos gained power by advancing public interest through acute insights into what society needs (call that a form of empathy), and then investing a great care and effort into delivering on that. Also, you can argue that his $2 billion charity fund is doing a lot of good for society.

What would be worth asking is if that early empathy and care continue to shape their leadership or if they fell into the power paradox trap. Dacher Keltner’s power paradox explains that the qualities that cause us to rise to positions of power are the very qualities that we lose once we have achieved power. Based on this, it is logical to ask if leaders of extremely large companies, like Bezos, are doing enough to ensure they do not lose touch with their ability to empathize with people, and are still able to maintain a healthy and meaningful work environment for their employees.

When you’ve grown a business to the point where it influences and controls significant swaths of industries and society – as Amazon does in eCommerce, cloud services, and now its branch out to manufacturing and other operations – you have to take some responsibility to care for and improve the world, too. Very simply: give something back!

creative leadership
When you've grown a business to the point where it influences and controls significant swaths of industries and society, you have to take some responsibility. #leadership #giveback Click To Tweet

Leadership is not management, it’s not just about continually producing results or shareholder value. Leadership must also include responsibility to the organization, society, and the world, and the weight of this responsibility will only increase as the size and impact of the organization grow.

Another interesting question to chew on could be: How might leaders with undeniable business success improve their leadership? If we believe that every leader can and should continuously explore how they can be better, then it may come down to mindset. They need to be willing to explore themselves and the impact they are having. They need to be willing to ask: “Are some of my beliefs and assumptions wrong? Can I use the creative and bold approaches that brought so much shareholder value to also create societal value? ? Am I willing to change? Can I be better?” It comes down to whether they can park their egos, open themselves to other perspectives and experiences, and unleash a better way of being and leading.

So I ask, Mr. Bezos, can you adopt responsible leadership at Amazon?

To develop your creative leadership skills and practice responsible leadership, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program. Download the brochure or find out if you qualify.

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