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Is Your Organization Tyrannical? IT Culture Lessons from Amazon

Citing a harsh recent The New York Times article about the online retail giant Amazon, Patrick Gray raises the question of ‘how much is too much’ when it comes to fostering a competitive, merit-based IT workplace. In an article for TechRepublic, Gray explains that the stress of working in the IT field is sometimes disproportionately high compared to the reward of being part of a culture that is innovative and driven to high standards of perfection.

Innovating People’s Lives Away?

The NYT article attempts to show both sides of the story, but in Gray’s opinion it actually trivializes Amazon’s successes. From stringent performance monitoring to an environment of harsh criticism and unyielding perfectionism, the fundamental problem with Amazon’s workplace culture may be that it is simply too extreme. Most IT firms use some form of performance monitoring, and it is true that excessive workplace harmony tends to produce unworthy praise and hence poor group decision-making.

Revisiting IT Work/Life Balance

The point however is to take a step back as an IT manager and to reflect on the idea of employee work/life balance. There is probably a fine line to tread, and although Amazon’s practices have drawn criticism, their shareholder demand remains solid. Employees however, have not been so kind, and as the job market continues to improve it is difficult to see how Amazon will maintain such a high-tension approach to managing its people:

Engendering competition and recognizing excellence are worthy goals, as long as you identify and redirect budding despots and tyrants rather than allow an organizational [Lord of the Flies.] Similarly, if you try to “play Bezos” without having a corresponding culture of innovation and opportunity or merit-based high compensation, your employees will oblige you by leaving, just like many of the NYT sources.

In an age that is driven by data, and in an industry that is particularly keen on measuring everything from how fast a reader leaves a page to how many minutes employees use to take bathroom breaks, it’s tempting to overdo it. Make sure that your IT company simply does it.

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About Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson is a staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success. He is an intern at Computer Aid Inc., pursuing his master's degree in communications at Penn State University.

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