Amazon: Niche or Norm? –A Question of Valuing Human Complexity

Amazon: Niche or Norm? –A Question of Valuing Human Complexity August 18, 2015


By Stephen Milliken

Headlining a look into Amazon’s work environment, The New York Times’ recent article exposes the company’s cutting-edge business practices. As the article prophesies, these innovative and relentlessly-aggressive business practices are blazing the trail for the future of business in a global market – and we can expect more of the same.

Before I even began to read the expose, I was cautious of what I would find and what I would think of this company that I have supported and continue to support financially (I am an Amazon Prime member). Perhaps my love of the ease and efficiency of this service makes me hesitant to critique, but I found myself both silently applauding and inaudibly gasping at the value-system and current practices of the recently most valuable retail company in the nation.

Amazon’s Leadership Principles, a direct result of Jeff Bezos’ (Amazon’s founder and CEO) unique vision and experience, serve to set the company apart in many ways. As a sort of reforming personality myself, I felt inspired and refreshed at a company’s willingness to emphasize the best ideas rather than tip-toe around people’s egos. Even their demand for a backbone, to disagree and commit, when tempered with civility and respect, is an encouraging shift in professional work environments.

I appreciate Amazon’s forthright and upfront honesty that it is a company that is difficult to work for and is not for everyone; I think there is much wisdom in creating a particular cultural identity as an institution rather than trying to be “all things to all people.” What’s more, their insistence upon frugality is a welcome breathe of fresh air as I lament the decadence and lavish nature of many American higher education institutions today.

Yet, in all that is innovative and laudable in Amazon’s pioneering direction, I think many are right to raise their eyebrows if not a flag of caution. Perhaps following thousands before them, Amazon is playing out the classic pendulum swing of extremes in an attempt to revolt and distance itself from what it deems the cultural norm.

For in critiquing the over-sensitivity and ego-massaging nature of many business environments, they are creating an environment almost hostile to employee support, encouragement, and well-being.

Going further, in attempting to make sure that ideas and efficiency have their day, Amazon is creating an environment that is moving more and more away from healthy standards of work. Though I have no doubt their point may be to improve those very standards, the error remains in that it narrows the definition of humanity to that of efficiency and work-output alone. Shaming the mere notion of work/life balance, Amazon fits the mosaic of our humanity into a mono-cultured output that, long or short-term, becomes problematic.

But I do not want to overly-critique Amazon’s countercultural ethos either. What they are creating, if it remains but one of a variety of options for the American worker, can be a liberating and inspiring testament to human achievement. Sure, it seems that the challenge and pace of Amazon’s culture is stereotypically a young man’s game (more appropriately a young, single, and driven person’s game).

Yet, as long as there are businesses and work cultures that are created to serve healthy work/life balance and even to support the whole person like Google is attempting, Amazon and future companies like it will carve out a niche within the business culture that can propel us forward. What’s more, with a variety of options with varying work environments, potential hires can benefit from being able to choose between those options to fit their own desires, philosophy, or needs.

Are there still standards of human decency and health that ought to apply to Amazon? Certainly. And for failing those standards, Amazon must be held accountable. Obviously, when a woman’s full humanity comes to bear if she becomes a mother, or if a man’s full humanity comes to bear as he becomes a father, it may certainly be appropriate to make reasonable accommodations for their long-term success at Amazon or transitioning to another company. As a society, we must maintain some semblance of standards of care for all (perhaps even for the least-of-these), the details of which we are destined to debate – but debate there must be.

The danger then lies in putting Amazon’s culture on a pedestal, on creating a one-size-fits-all, best practices approach. If all companies go the way of Amazon, then I will fly my flag of caution and even of warning with the highest of them. But as one of many options, Amazon remains an innovative reformer of global business practices, and in many ways we can all be thankful for their ascendancy and learn from their successes and failures.

In the same breath, I hope that we will continue to advocate for, even demand that we have, practical examples of many companies that embody a more sustainable model of work/life balance, a fuller vision and value-system for what it means to be human. The variety of work environments is a direct reflection of different stages of life, different value-systems, and different desires of the millions of Americans that constitute the workforce.

Even the work/life balance itself may still be a false dichotomy, a cultural norm that gives careers and our work more emphasis than necessary. What about a work/family/church/civic/friends/hobbies/leisure “balance?” So much of our humanity is intimately connected with who we are and what we do outside of our jobs. It is vital that we never lose the multiplicity and complexity of what it means to be human, and for that, we need a multiplicity of employers and work environments to meet the variety of good human desires and needs and acknowledge that it is not wrong or shameful to have human limitations and needs.

10937716_651823365129_1258682656_nStephen Milliken works for a security company in Indianapolis, IN. He recently lived and worked as a resident intern at Lamppost Farm in Columbiana, OH, a non-profit ministry and educational farm seeking to serve the Kingdom by helping to facilitate relationship with God, creation, others, and self.

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