That Amazon culture story just won’t quit. For management consultants, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. It will be spoken about for years, in the same hushed tones as the famous Netflix deck (remember “stunning colleagues”?). In the wake of last week’s LinkedIn post by Amazon VP Brad Porter about the company’s “magical” meetings (which brought to mind ducks on a pond – managers placidly gliding through their meetings while the team members paddle furiously beneath the surface, researching and fact-checking 6-page documents), I can’t stop thinking about well-intended culture killers.
The Amazon example, though shocking to some, isn’t all that surprising. Or unusual. Amazon may have taken reverse culture to a new level, but employers brainwashing, analyzing, categorizing, humiliating and jettisoning employees isn’t new. It’s common, to greater and lesser degrees, and the goal is always the same: Separate wheat from chaff and keep only an idealized workforce of top performers. (Never mind that this is not a functional model.)
Unfortunately, the most popular approaches to building this mythical workforce are also serious culture killers. Your company may not have gone all in on any of these, but it’s likely you’ve implemented a portion of at least one.
1. Adopting a “high performance culture”
“High performance culture” (HPC) is a term that makes me shudder. Picture high-strung fast-talkers who are always ready to divide and defend within a culture that prizes individual achievement, values the stick over the carrot, and pits employees against each other in a competitive arena (aka “360 evaluations”). Those who survive are deemed “high performers.”
And that’s where these cultures get it wrong: They confuse stamina with performance. They think people who have the grit to stick it out and do what it takes (work on vacation, narc on coworkers) are “top performers.” Many, many companies strive for this, forgetting that man-to-man combat is an individual sport. Encouraging individual level competition gets you people with their eyes on a pretty small ball – that of their own achievement.
Stamina is not performance. It’s just…stamina. If you really want top performers who are focused on company and team success, you need to recognize and reward people who understand teamwork and who aspire to (and inspire) greatness by encouraging collaboration, ideas, and imagination.
Also, I’ve found that companies who want to adopt an HPC see it as a solution to an “LPC.” Yet you can’t fix a “low performing culture” by layering a rigid evaluative structure on top of it. You don’t fix a broken house by building a different house on top of it; you fix a broken house by fixing the broken house.
2. Implementing a Cult(ure) of Fear
Experience and history proves time and again that the fastest way to get people to follow the leader is through fear. And the best way to motivate through fear is by, yes, couching it in performance terms. You start by creating the conditions for increased “performance”:
- You need a culture that “inspires” people to give more and more and more (more time, more energy, more brainpower)
- You need a charismatic leader that people want to impress
- You need to give people something to shoot for (the undefined best, biggest, most awesome, newest, yet-to-be-invented whatchamacallit), and you need to create myths and folklore around it
- You need a mountaintop and you need to make it very hard to get to
- And you need a culture that pits people against each other
You then antagonize and humiliate the people at the top so the stress runs downhill. And then you simply turn up the heat and watch people Darwinize themselves. (What you see will look a lot like the Amazon described in the Times piece.)
Here’s the thing: Fear is a great motivator. But it’s not a great innovator. I’ve never seen a team, tweaked to the nines, come up with a game-changing idea. It just doesn’t happen. This “last man standing” attitude doesn’t breed long-term creativity and innovation. People get tired of standing on the bodies of their fallen comrades – and then you get uncontrolled evolution, revolution, or a workforce that’s running as fast as it can in circles.
3. Worshipping at the altar of Busyness
There’s a Hyundai commercial running now that shows a cocky dude packing his bag at 6:01pm and walking out of an office while a voiceover intones, “Busy. It’s worn like a badge. Coming in early and staying really late. When did leaving work on time become an act of courage?” His coworkers eyeball his exit.
We’ve all been time-shamed like this. It’s pervasive in our culture to fetishize Busyness – every conversation is dominated by overtures of how busy we are, how much we have to do, how little time we have. We use Busyness as explanation, defense and excuse, and as a way to diffuse the guilt (for being too busy or not busy enough!).
This guilt causes us – and our employers – to emphasize input over output. We measure value by hours invested vs. ideas generated. We glorify Busyness at the expense of business. People stay until 8, but they stop working long before then. And resentment fills the gap. (Anyone who has been cautioned about “time optics” knows this feeling.)
Of the three culture killers described, this can be the easiest to fix: Treat people like adults. Correct them based on actual performance failures, not on the fear of performance failures.
What can you do if you realize you’re killing your culture even as you try to bolster performance?
Understand that all three of these methods share a common core: Negativity. And you can’t fix a negative with a negative. Negativity is not a long-term play. It’s not attractive. And the talent you want is not interested in it. If you sincerely want to boost performance, set aside the stick. And try to understand the right array of carrots that will get you and your teams where you want to go.