The Amazon portrayed in the New York Times’ powerful and brave expose of workforce dysfunction surprised CEO Jeff Bezos.
“I don’t recognize this Amazon, and I very much hope you don’t either,” the perpetually smiling company founder wrote to employees, and essentially to the world.
Gee, big surprise. Jeff Bezos, insulated by layers of managers and isolated from weeping employees terrified of meetings and ruthless rankings, thinks the company culture is just great.
Of course he does. Because he’s looking in the mirror.
How could Jeff be so disconnected from the workplace realities?
It’s more than his misplaced faith in data over emotional intelligence.
He appears to buy in to a common fallacy: that creating a policy and announcing a program or procedure means that the workplace reality will magically align.
In other words, I say it and it happens.
That’s magical thinking.
From pay equity to work-life programs, what Jeff doesn’t get is what most CEO’s don’t get: if they don’t align managers’ incentives to the policy, it will won’t get done. ‘’
Here’s the dirty secret that undermines all those big plans issuing from the top: they all come with a tiny asterisk: “At the discretion of the employees’ supervisor.”
Big announcements of grand plans come to naught due to that asterisk. With fanfare and cake, corporate chieftains announce their pay equity programs, their new women’s initiatives, generous paid leave for new parents and other programs designed to win and keep more women.
When the cake is eaten and the confetti is swept up, those programs must be put into practice. Bosses throughout the company sit down to read the details and a good number of them realize that the new program directly contradicts their goals for productivity, profits or both. Then that manager pulls out her personal performance incentive contract and gives it a good read. She confirms what she suspected – that she’ll get a bonus for hitting that profit or productivity goal, but nothing if she gets with the shiny new program.
So you tell me: what’s going to win?
Right. She’ll call on that asterisk to inform her staff that the new program doesn’t align with their team’s goals (and her bonus).
That’s the banana peel. That is why big plans fail to become everyday reality.
And when those big plans dissipate in the face of contradictory incentives, employees become cynical, bitter, and distrustful. That’s why Jeff Bezos didn’t recognize the Amazon he thought he built as it was reflected in the New York Times’ powerful expose of the retailer’s culture. He thought that if he told everybody to have fun at work, they would. But if a line manager’s choice is your fun vs. their bonus, you’ll be working late so your boss can reap her quarterly incentive.