Jeff Bezos’s Leadership Style and The Culture Within Amazon

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If one converses about customer service, it is less likely to end the conversation without mentioning Amazon. The largest customer-oriented online retailer in the United States founded by Jeff Bezos has led the company successfully for years, yet whose leadership style is often criticized reflecting the culture within it. While some praised Bezos for the skills of a transformational leader, the founder has also been accused of creating a toxic environment within the company. This essay based on theories of leadership and culture examines the degree to which Jeff Bezos’s leadership style is either toxic or transformational and how it has affected the company culture.

Transformational or Toxic?

Amazon is one of the few companies with a culture of discourse where employees are encouraged to be pugnacious over each other’s views seeing it as a way to generate honest views from its employees during the decision making process. Besides, it can be seen as proof that Jeff Bezos is a transformational leader for boosting intellectual and imaginational stimulation of his employees by encouraging different opinions on the table and driving employees to see situations from different eyes through arguing their views, resulting in the innovative and productive workforce within the company (Keskes, 2018). According to an Amazon executive, one of the best skills Bezos possesses over any other employer he has worked for is that Bezos looks for the truth (by encouraging employees to think critically) and holds onto it by incorporating it into decision making. However, as much as the culture of debate is an effective tool for accurate decision making, it has pressurized some employees to an extent intolerable with their leader being completely blunt with them as a means to squeeze unflawed views out of them. From belittling employees to publicly manipulating them is seen as a common behaviour of Bezos in the company and such unethical behaviours are identified as part of toxic leaders’ repertoire (Lipman-Blumen, 2005, p.18).

A leader is a person who directs people through motivation and is a role model for employees (Knights and Willmott, 2012, p.319). According to some of the Amazonians, encouraging and motivating them towards the company goals without actually getting too close with them and encouraging them to perform more than what they thought their limit was, are among the skills their leader has. It could certainly be considered as a transformational behaviour of Bezos as inspirational motivation is an element of transformational leadership, where the vision of the company is clearly communicated among employees and they are challenged with high standards to improve their abilities (Bass and Riggio, 2006, p.4). Hence, analysts state that constantly raising employee standards within the company is what kept Amazon efficient for years. While standards are set for the Amazon employees’ performance, employees are forced to finish the tasks properly and if an employee is not presenting we-are-going-to-conquer-the-world-mentality and the performance is not up to the standard, Bezos gets livid. In his best-selling book Band of Brothers, Stephen E. Ambrose (1992) talks about a toxic leader, showing an example of the commander of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who made employees apprehensive over less significant tasks, who had poor judgment and whose style was completely detested by employees, yet they tried to perform their best without complaining as they feared their leader.

To keep employees on track with the fast-changing environment, it is imperative to determine ways to enhance employees’ skills. Therefore, in the name of identifying future leaders, Amazon introduced a performance evaluation system known as Organization and Leadership Review in 2013 where staff who are performing well and low are identified twice a year. This system could be considered as a transformational initiative of Bezos as the strengths and weakness of the employees will be known through the system, which will help them realize the areas they should improvise, opening a door for personal growth and above all, it means individual consideration is taken into account (Bass and Riggio, 2006, p.4). Although the OLR is seen as a system valuing each individual, actions are taken against employees who are inefficient in the company and it is known that employees’ performance is evaluated not completely based on their performance, but managers’ ability to present their employees well in the OLR meetings where they usually implicate employees of other departments. According to Bass & Bass (2008), individual consideration is not just celebrating or promoting employees in return for their efficient performance, but mentoring, motivating and supporting those who are inefficient too. Therefore, it is questionable if the OLR system can be identified as a transformative action of Bezos, as employees who are least efficient face “appropriate” action from the company and it could be even dismissing them.

It has been frequently said by Amazonians that having someone charismatic like Jeff Bezos make them see things from a different perspective and that the feeling is rewarding for anyone who is passionate about their career as employees are led to work beyond their limits. Employees recognize their leader as charismatic and start following when they feel empowered and empowerment is the key to identify a charismatic leader (Avolio and Yammarino, 2013). Moreover, it is a part of idealized influence under transformational leadership where the leader displays charisma and makes employees feel confident about the vision by constantly reminding them of the achievements company accomplish by holding onto its vision (Bass and Riggio, 2006, p.6). Bezos has always been clear of his vision for accomplishing the status of most customer-centric around the world and has gained the confidence of his employees by leading Amazon into success while holding tight to it. Nevertheless, employees may be confident and have trust in the vision of Bezos for his company, but it is unclear if they all trust their leader when it comes to their job security and transparency, as Bezos and the top management has been accused of using tools like Anytime Feedback Tool to eliminate employees who are least efficient or who express autonomy, where the employees send complains or praise to their managers regarding other employees anonymously. Furthermore, one of the Amazonians mentioned feeling disrupted and sabotaged of getting whipped by anonymous and unarguable feedbacks, which is a hint of Bezos’s leadership being toxic. Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders says (2005, p.18) “Corruption, hypocrisy, sabotage, and manipulation, as well as other assorted unethical illegal and criminal acts, are part of the poisonous repertoire of toxic leaders”.

The Culture

As Knights and Willmott states (2012, p.374), “culture is an anthropological term that refers to the shared values, beliefs and norms about key priorities and ways of undertaking particular tasks, or relating to colleagues among members of a particular organization”. Amazon can be identified as a company where there is a complex, goal-driven, corporate culture formed based on its leadership principles and a few of its leader’s impulses. Under his leadership, Bezos has driven employees to argue each other’s ideas for an efficient decision-making process, instead of opening a door for flawed ideas by letting cloying tendency of employees who find comfort by agreeing with everything to be as it is and this has been one of the reasons behind the company’s success. Likewise, Amazonians are asked to espouse the company’s values and beliefs (Schein and Schein, 2017, p.19), known as leadership principles and leave their “poor habits” from the first day onwards, making sure the vision of the company is crystal clear to them and the employees who leave Amazon are highly demanded in the labour market because of their work ethics. On the contrary, albeit the corporate culture has played a major role in keeping Amazon successful, it is also a form of controlling and oppressing employees for the benefit of the company by increasing conformity to make sure employees are properly in line with goals, which hints the presence of the Unitarism to a degree. For instance, the work and movements of the Amazon employees are monitored via technology and the actions are taken against employees who waste time. Moreover, according to recruiters, some of the companies are careful while recruiting ex-employees of Amazon because of their combativeness and work obsessiveness, which are artefacts (Schein and Schein, 2017, p.19) of Amazon’s internal culture.

To conclude, Jeff Bezos can be considered a leader with both transformational and toxic traits who inspires and encourages his employees to put their best effort into performances while reminding them leadership principles and leads his followers with such work ethics that other employers look forward to in their employees. However, Bezos’s leadership has also made Amazon a toxic working environment where employees are combative and tools are used to avoid inefficient employees. The culture of Amazon has benefited employees those who are keen to lead in their careers no matter what, yet it has belittled employees who are keen to pursue their career in an ethical way.


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