I don’t know Amazon’s culture except by third party accounts, so I won’t opine on that. What I will talk about is what I believe is a dimensionality to any company’s culture that I believe may have been conflated in this discussion. I believe that a company can be demanding or (and) callous. What is the difference:
A demanding company:
- Sets high standards;
- Screens its employees thoroughly to make sure that the company: 1) understands the person that they are going to hire; and 2) the person that is getting hired understands the company. This is important in terms of making sure that there is a cultural fit and that the expectations (regarding culture and the demanding nature of the company) of the employee are set before they agree to join;
- Clearly defines and communicates what success and failure means (even before the candidate is an employee), i.e. sets expectations so that the employee knows what is expected of them. This matters because if you don’t know what success looks like, you aren’t likely to understand 1) what you are going to have to do to achieve it; 2) how much work it is; and 3) whether or not you have achieved it;
- Provides feedback (both negative and positive) in a manner that helps the employee to continue to do the right things and improve on those things where they are deficient. Being demanding without providing feedback results in frustration. Very few employees will “get it” without some feedback regarding their performance and even the best employees can improve with the right coaching and performance related feedback;
- Motivates its employees in a way so that they perceive hard work as a challenge and not a grind. It is often said that people need a reason to feel good about what they do. A sense of mission that makes sense to the employee is important to them feeling good about what they are doing in a part of their life that takes up a large part (no matter what job it is) of the 168 hours we all have in a week.;
- Promotes teamwork. There are very few situations where a high performing team won’t outperform a group of equally talented individuals who are working separately. This thought may seem gratuitous to some, but there are very few companies that is made up of employees who are all individual contributors and companies whose employees master teamwork are unbeatable, i.e. more productive, more creative and overall higher performing. I recommend an HBR article titled the Discipline of Teams (Katzenbach, Smith) for those who want to investigate this particular trait further.
A callous company:
- Has no/little regard for their employees, i.e. look at their employees along one dimension, current productivity and is unwilling to take the time to understand why someone they have hired (spending plenty of time and money doing it) may not be performing to expectations;
- Sets employees against one another. Puts employees in an zero-sum environment, i.e. a win for one employee is a loss for another;
- Is unwilling, generally, to invest in its employees.
It seems to me that the way to understand Amazon (or any company, for that matter) is to figure out how they score against a weighted average (some are more important than others) of each of the bullets listed above.
It is pretty clear that Amazon is scoring poorly on some of the dimensions, but not necessarily or uniformly on the second group of bullets, i.e. those that denote a callous employer. I say this because they may be more at fault in their screening process than having little or no regard for their employees. And, I note that an employee with whom expectations are not clearly set may find it difficult to discern between a company that they would fit into and one that they wouldn’t.
So as is often the case, the answer isn’t a simple one and a demanding company most definitely isn’t a bad idea—even if they really, really make you work hard. I found that those types of companies (when they implement it right) can be among the most satisfying to work for!