At Amazon Accountability Falls Short Without Empathy

I have been thinking deeply about the recent New York Times article about Amazon’s culture (and resultant blogging by many), wavering between unfounded judgments (how could someone lead this way?) and also holding empathy for Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, and the executive team. I know that a company that large cannot possibly be categorized neatly in one box, and also that leaders there, like leaders everywhere, are doing what they think makes sense at the time, with the best intentions.

When considering the Amazon article, I find two dimensions of the brouhaha particularly intriguing in the context of how companies and teams sustain long-term health.

Firstly, the Amazon leadership team seems to have actually done a good job creating a norm in which coworkers are expected to hold each other accountable, demonstrated by their values statement, “have backbone: disagree and commit.”

We consistently get called in to help teams who want better results and more positive connection, and our number one solution is introducing tools for engaging in healthy conflict to foster mutual accountability. What tends to happen in companies and teams where healthy conflict is not present is what we call Artificial Harmony. Artificial harmony is present when it looks like team members get along and have each other’s backs, but the team disintegrates into rumor milling, backstabbing and prizing individual success at the expense of the collective when the going gets tough.

Telling each other the truth about strengths, weaknesses, contributions and impacts, though difficult, disrupts artificial harmony and creates better long-term connection between individuals and better team results. In the same way that peer pressure is powerful during adolescence, the opinion of colleagues as adults impacts us. In my experience, having peer-to-peer accountability is a sign of tremendous team health and I believe this is what Amazon is striving for.

When I was a guide in the wilderness, we used to always say that every expedition can only move as fast as it’s slowest member. Healthy teams and organizations have the same dynamic: In order for the team to perform well, every member needs to be supported and lifted by every other member. This requires rigorous feedback, truth telling, and directness in order for each individual to bring their best work. In this kind of model teams can achieve the phenomenal together.

The other dimension of the Amazon articles and blogs that really struck a chord with me is the seeming lack of emphasis on compassion and empathy between team members.

I’m not saying that compassion or empathy are completely lacking, but the authors of the New York Times article clearly highlighted some examples where neither compassion nor empathy were primary levers in workplace interactions. To me, this is a major miss.

If healthy rigorous dialogue, debate and conflict are pillars of healthy teams at work, then compassion and empathy are the foundation. In order to receive truthful feedback and hold accountability between myself and a colleague, I need to feel that he or she cares for me in a heartfelt way, “get’s me,” and wants to help me learn and grow. It is the one-two punch paradox of challenge and support between team members that allows skilled and dynamic teams to really excel.

In the presence of compassion (both for others and for self) and empathy, it’s okay to make mistakes because it’s the striving for greatness that gets us close to the mark. Employees may not succeed every single time they stretch at work, but by risking and reaching, they increase the odds of achieving more success, more often, even if it means also failing more often. In order to risk mistake making for the sake of potential successes, employees need to feel the social capital of compassion and empathy from the colleagues around them.

Peer-to-peer accountability and compassion/empathy go hand-in-hand.

It is possible that Amazon has succeeded in establishing the mutual accountability part of this dynamic very well. However, to really activate truthful feedback and accountability based on trust, they must also strengthen the muscles of their gargantuan workforce in the tangible skills of compassion and empathy.

Getting an inside look at a large company like Amazon that is so in the public eye is powerful for any leader or team member. It challenges us to look at how we do things in our organizations, and how we grow healthy teams that sustain. Teams don’t need Artificial Harmony and touchy-feely goodness. They need powerful connection, meaningful vulnerability, the ability to make and learn from mistakes without fear, and truth telling between colleagues to help everyone do their best work most of the time and be supported with compassion when they fail.

I hope the buzz around the Amazon article helps leaders have conversations about how they are creating team health in their organizations, and encourages them to take a look at how rigorous peer feedback, healthy conflict, empathy and compassion can be integrated. It’s not an easy recipe or simple mix for team health, but it is an integral piece of the end result.

Jim Morris