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A hard driving culture might be what you need

by | Aug 20, 2015 | Culture, Leadership

What the Amazon story tells us about creating a corporate culture


Your organization has its own, personal culture. Some organizations set the achievement bar high, and the culture and intensity of work support that goal. Some strive for innovation on an ongoing basis. People join because from the outside looking in, these organizations seem dynamic, challenging new frontiers. Adrenaline pumps furiously when working in a fast paced and highly rewarding environment. Friends want to hear stories about your workplace. Many people thrive in such places. Yet others won’t succeed – no matter how hard they try. It might look fun and exciting, but those benefits come at a cost.

The perspective of teams is often different from those in leadership – no matter how productive an organization you run. We have seen many organizations with such a rift between those who set the vision and those who have to implement. Alignment from the top brass to the front line is something that is difficult to achieve – especially as your organization grows. And it is no wonder that there is a discrepancy in perception, because each department within the organization presumably has its own rhythm and culture based on its respective management. Yet, no matter the differential, one rule of organizational leadership that always rings true is that the behavior at the top drives the behavior throughout.

But culture doesn’t equate to employee happiness.

We have worked with a number of leaders like the Jeff Bezos described in the NY Times articleabout the culture at Amazon. Many of these leaders had only the good intentions of the organizations at heart. They are passionate; they care; they have fully integrated their work and personal lives. Yet some of those who work for them don’t have comparable passion and drive. Many employees enjoy coming to work, doing a good job and going home. Being ok with that is often very difficult for these types of leaders. So cultures and behaviors begin to disconnect, and unless addressed, a larger rift is formed.

Leaders in any organization must ensure, however, that there is room in the culture for people to express dissenting opinions. It is ok for the culture to vary some between functions. But the core cultural tenets need to hold across the organization. If a culture is toxic and hurting people or performance, change it. Otherwise, recognize that culture is continuously evolving and respect what works and what doesn’t. It is hard to keep a company performing when you ratchet down the culture of performance to the least common denominator. When leaders aim high and drive employees to strive for the best, individuals who thrive in that environment will stay.

The response that Jeff Bezos sent to his team was exactly the right note to send. Allowing room for conversation and response is key to any successful leadership tenure. The culture at Amazon is a gray one for those of us on the outside – and one that works for some and not for others. Yet, it can give everyone the opportunity reflect on our own organizations and find ways to enhance our own work environment.

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