Known for innovation, the workplace culture at Amazon, as outlined by the New York Times— “purposeful Darwinism” one calls it— is certainly a few things. Innovative may not be one of them.
In a matter of hours the outrage cycle hit critical mass, with the inevitable backlash and defense of the company’s practices outlined in the exposé spewing from the fingers of Twitter-users.
The lengthy piece described the experiences of current and former employees who suffered from cancer, miscarriages, and other personal crises who said they had been evaluated unfairly or even pushed out by a company with large ambitions and an inability to accommodate those who could not keep up, independent of circumstance.
A few days later, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos responded to the article, reportedly telling workers of its description, “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t either.”
As with any he said/she said tale of finger pointing and denial, the true workplace culture at Amazon, the world’s largest retailer with a market capitalization of $250 billion, likely falls somewhere between “a soulless dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard,” as Bezos described the description, and some kind of worker paradise.
But at a company such as Amazon, where innovation, volume, and speed are king, one imagines the difficulty in creating a work/life balance. As Jason Merkoski, an ex-employee told the Times, “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”
It’s a struggle shared by many companies, not just Amazon: how does culture drive performance?
To answer that question, one must understand that why individuals work directly impacts how well they work; that different motivations breed different behaviors. But what are these motivations?
Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, co-authors of “Primed to Perform”, a book which explores the science behind high-performing workplace cultures — and cofounders of a company that builds technology to help organizations create high-performing culture — have identified six basic motives which influence employee work. The goal? For institutions to understand that culture is not work hours and perks, but a collection of motives. The first three here are to be maximized, while the latter three minimized.
No, not foosball tables. Play refers to the enjoyment employees feel for the work itself. Are employees given the freedom to experiment? To ask questions? Encouraging a sense of play at any organization, including credit unions, is the most powerful work-motivating force.
Purpose is about being able to see and feel the outcomes of one’s work. Credit unions serve their members’ financial needs. But how do institutions show their staff the benefits of that work? How can you show the loan originator that his or her approval allowed a new couple to move into a new home? That a student loan will help a teenager afford college?
Potential refers to employees’ understanding of long-term outlook in a given organization. Do they see opportunity to grow personally and do more interesting and impactful work over that time? Potential encompasses more than the ability to grow vertically within the organization. Employees also want to feel their ideas are heard — that a good idea, no matter its origin, will be treated as a good idea.
4. Emotional Pressure
If potential refers to an individual’s drive based on his or her own desires, emotional pressure refers to drive based on others’ expectations. While a workplace certainly has team-based elements inherent to its form, conforming to emotional pressure and working to solely meet the expectations of others can prove deeply unsatisfying and demoralizing.
5. Economic Pressure
When employees fixate on avoiding punishment or earning reward, they are working against economic pressure. This pressure hurts performance and stifles creative thinking as employees are more concerned with self-preservation than searching for solutions that are innovative but possibly contentious.
Inertia refers to the force of habits which drive an employee’s work. For employees at institutions and in departments they would consider or aspire to be agile, inertia proves a persistent problem because, as they say, old habits die hard.