Why Amazon’s incredibly demanding workplace isn’t killing worker productivity

August 18, 2015, 6:24 PM UTC

The recent New York Times story on Amazon’s workplace has sent ripples across the media landscape because of its bombshell anecdotes—”Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” one former employee said. It also stood in stark contrast to announcements made just a few months earlier by companies like Netflix, Microsoft, Adobe, and KKR that expanded benefits for new parents in blatant attempts to attract and retain employees by making life with baby a little easier.

The sweetened parental leave policies reflect research that suggests employees who are engaged and happy at work are more productive. The Times portrays Amazon as anything but a cheery workplace.

There is, of course, debate about just how balanced The New York Times story is and just how unhappy Amazon workers are. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, for his part, said that he didn’t recognize the workplace described in the Times‘ article and that any “callous management practices” like those cited in the piece should be reported to Amazon’s human resources department. Nick Ciubotariu, Amazon’s head of infrastructure development, defended his company on LinkedIn on Sunday, arguing that “singling out several outliers to vilify an entire company does not represent truth in journalism.”

That said, the story portrayed Amazon’s workplace as a pressure-packed setting that fosters—if not encourages—grueling hours and conflict among colleagues.

But if that’s the case, how does Amazon, with its $250 billion market cap, manage to spark worker productivity when its office culture—according to academic literature—should be one that saps it?

It’s possible that Amazon has managed to establish a rare workplace condition: its employees are on a mission.

In the 2011 book she co-authored, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile studied nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees at seven companies and found that a high-time-pressure environment can lead to creative work when workers are focused on a single, high-impact goal.

“In general, a basic effect of time-pressure is that it undermines creative productivity,” Amabile told Fortune. “The most common kind [of time-pressure] is like being on a treadmill,” she says. In that scenario, you’re trying to make headway on your primary project, but you’re distracted by other tasks and responsibilities that keep getting in your way. At the end of the day, “you’ve caught a lot of balls and juggled them, but you didn’t get anywhere on your most important work,” she says.

But being on a mission is one kind of time-pressure that precedes high levels of creativity. Workers understand why there’s urgency; there’s a meaningful purpose. Getting the work done will provide a solution for customers or the company or society at large. “It’s high-time-pressure, but [employees’] attention is not fragmented to a number of goals and activity that are not directly relevant. There’s still a great deal of urgency, but that focus seems to be crucial to the breakthrough level of creativity,” Amabile says.

At this point, it’s hard to know for certain if Amazon has been able to milk productivity from its workers because they’re “on a mission.” But the company’s emphasis on big ideas like drone delivery and the Times‘ repeated mention of its workers’ intense focus on “selling Amazon gift cards to other companies,” “manag[ing] housewares vendors,” and its conclusion that “Amazon [directly] links [employees’] performance to the success of their assigned projects” suggests that this might be the case.

Just because that may be working for Amazon doesn’t mean the tactic will resonate everywhere. “Unfortunately,” Amabile writes in her book, “even working on a mission for long periods of time can lead to burnout and degraded performance.” An ideal workplace is characterized by low to moderate time pressure, “punctuated by occasional periods of focused urgency.”

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