Jeff Bezos To Social Cohesion: Drop Dead

Actually, the Amazon bigwig said: "If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself." Why?

Upon reading the Bloomberg Businessweek cover story on Amazon, a portrait of Jeff Bezos emerges: He's overwhelmingly intelligent, overwhelmingly prescient, and sometimes just simply overwhelming, as in the way that he yells at employees.

Writer Brad Stone collects some of his greatest in-meeting quips, as recollected by Amazon veterans:

  • "Are you lazy or just incompetent?"
  • "I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?"
  • "Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?"
  • "If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself."
  • After an engineer’s presentation: "Why are you wasting my life?"

Stone notes that the people who do best at the company can thrive in the adversarial atmosphere. Rather than brainstorming their way into groupthink, Bezos has a built an engine of argument:

Bezos abhors what he calls "social cohesion," the natural impulse to seek consensus. He’d rather his minions battle it out backed by numbers and passion, and he has codified this approach in one of Amazon’s 14 leadership principles—the company’s highly prized values that are often discussed and inculcated into new hires:

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit. Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Clearly, the storminess inside Amazon is like lightning in a bottle: Stone reports that the nearly 20-year-old company is at $75 billion in annual revenue and a $140 billion market value, with its headcount growing to 97,000 full-time and part-time employees. Plus, as our cover story shows, the advance of the Bezos empire knows no bounds.

Some employees dig the confrontational culture and "couldn't work effectively anywhere else," Stone says. But why might the confrontation be so constructive?

Move fast, break hearts

Agreement feels good—hey, we get along great!—but it's not the best for innovation. Why? Because if everybody has the same idea, then you only have one idea.

So if you want more ideas, you need to disagree, which is why partnering with someone who has an opposite work-style or background from you is so effective: Since your perspectives address different areas, you won't duplicate your work. It's a confrontational, constructive form of diversity.

Bottom Line: Inside Amazon, constant friction begets creative tension.

Hat tip: Bloomberg Businessweek

[Image: Flickr user Dan Farber]

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13 Comments

  • kenodave

    I would respond to him by saying 'you fuk with me again, I will bring out the oven.'

  • Jimmy Jam

    “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?” That quote alone speaks volumes. Sounds like Bezos doesn't practice what he preaches.

  • dbf

    meh. stuff said like this in the guise of a sarcastic curmudgeon can be funny. People need to lighten up and not take it so serious. he's just getting his point across.

  • affront

    I wonder how Bezos would do the psychopath test. Sounds like a fully fledged psycho to me. I also wonder if, like Margaret Thatcher, he hates the notion of society itself as well as social cohesion? If so that would help to explain why Amazon fights so aggressively to avoid paying taxes. In the long run, of course, a self destructive policy because it destroys institutions like schools. With thoroughly unpleasant, greedy bullies like this as role models I fear for our future.

  • Jessica Darko

    He's an idiot that has created a company where backstabbing and playing polics are valued, far more than quality engineering. These constant PR pieces are bought and paid for by Amazon to try and pretend like this online walmart is some sort of tech company. It isn't.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Sounds like a perfect fit for me! I'm wired to be a boundary breaker and test the integrity of assumptions. Now this is great for innovation, and critical thinking, but not so great for following the rules and conforming to group think.

    It's well documented how CEO's and other leaders that surround themselves with "yes" people get a narrower view and are more inclined to pitfalls they could avoid if people really had their back.

    I've learned there are trade-offs of course. I prefer to speak out of line, but it's good to get permission first. Even when you get permission to speak freely, you still need to exercise some tact. However, the essential component is establishing mutual agreement about the process. You might just lay out from the onset that you don't have time to mess around sugar coating things, and can't afford the energy to act outside your nature. At the same time, or maybe at a different time, understanding the draw you can take on people, you might do more to assure them of your appreciation and compensate them more generously for their trouble.

    It's interesting from a leadership perspective. People with different personality types might not be robust enough to argue their best insights. Some people will not engage for fear, and others might do better in a positive structured environment where the have the assurance of cohesion.

    There's also a time and place factor. For instance, competitive disagreement might be great for certain situations, but somewhere along the line of the process continuum you probably need enthusiastic buy-in if you want to execute to potential.

    An interesting reference to this is the preface to "Robert's Rules of Order". It talks about how to effectively manage deliberative assemblies, such as the importance of getting all stakeholders a chance to represent their interests, even if the ultimate decision is not in their favor. Supposedly, if you master this skillset, even if you start from a position of severe disagreement, you can achieve consensus every time.

    Best, Anthony

  • Jessica Darko

    I''ve worked there. Bezos is surrounded by Yes Bozos who kiss his ass. Promotion in the company is all about kissing ass, not doing good work, and certainly not about being innovative.

    If you're a backstabber who plays politics well, you'll love the company... but if you actually want to make a dent in the universe, you'll never do it there.