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Commentary

How a ruthless workplace culture kills innovation

Aug 20, 2015

In a 2010 commencement speech at Princeton University, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said: "Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they're given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices.”

Bezos' remarks is an insightful and powerful call to consider the choices that we make and the impact they have. This is a CEO who just 'gets it,' but interestingly enough, The New York Times overlooked this part of his Princeton speech when it described how a ruthless Bezos did not “beg or appeal to sentiment” in getting his grandmother to quit smoking. “He just did the math, calculating that every puff cost her a few minutes,” The New York Times reported.

It’s hard to know what is going on at Amazon, and I’m not here to debate whether or not this is a true representation of the company that exists today. I really could not tell you.

However, what interests me is debunking the myth being perpetuated that say in order to be disruptive like Amazon (amzn), one has to act like the company that The New York Times piece reported that it is, whether real or imagined.

Having a ruthless culture is about efficiency, and that can work for some companies. But ruthlessness is not innovation. It does not feed disruption.

I can tell you that a number of companies have been hugely successful, disrupting long standing industries, without the need to be culturally ruthless. Airbnb, Adobe, Slack, SquareSpace and Warby Parker are just a few that equate people with profit. No one would argue that they aren’t disruptive.

These companies are thriving because they actively cultivate and foster environments where people matter.

According to Culture Amp’s 2015 Benchmark report — which surveyed 60,000 employees across 100 of the world’s most innovative tech companies — employees at these companies are far more positive than those in other industries.

In particular, they are more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work (83% vs. 73% in other industries) and are more motivated to put in discretionary effort (70% vs. 57 % in other industries).

One great way to assess if an organization is likely to be innovative or disruptive is to ask employees if they agree with the statement “We are encouraged to be innovative even though some of our initiatives may not succeed.” Being able to take risks, being able to fail is fundamental to creating an environment where innovation can take place.

Neuroscience has also proven that cultures that foster “fear,” or are not open to risk, can actually affect “brain plasticity,” making “rewiring” more difficult. Organizational consultant Kevin Weitz says neuroscience has shown that the “hardwiring” of a limbic-driven fear response in organizations suggests that over many years employees’ brains have become acutely trained to be fearful and cautious.

Most disruptive tech companies get that they need to embrace risk-taking — internally and externally. That is the freedom to fail. What the Valley does really well -- and is talked about in the commentary on Amazon — is give those people taking risks the data they need to assess what works and what doesn’t.

And on this we can all agree — data is the new lifeblood of companies. What we are seeing across hundreds of the world’s most innovative companies is not the result of ruthless, Darwinian corporations, but deeply innovative and risk-taking cultures. These are two opposed goals -- not the same thing.

And to succeed in creating disruptive organizations in the face of increased competition for both tech talent and market share, we need to foster an environment that values its people.

Those who don’t act accordingly will run the risk of losing people to companies that value their employees more.

And who would choose to stay with that kind of an operation?

“I know I would leave such a company,” Bezos said in a memo to the Amazon staff that was a response to the article. Anyone opting to work for the company depicted in The New York Times piece, he added, would be crazy to stay.

On this, he is right.

Didier Elzinga is CEO and co-founder of Culture Amp, a culture analytics platform.

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