The New York Times published a front-page report on Amazon.com Inc.’s allegedly “bruising workplace” on Aug. 16, 2015. Authors Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld described a culture that appears to sacrifice employee well-being to insatiable performance expectations. Amazon and Times editors sparred over the story’s accuracy, and journalism scholars debated the objectivity of a report based largely on anonymous, anecdotal evidence. But if the Times piece is even somewhat truthful, that leaves us to wonder why a workplace that espouses cultural values such as “Hire and Develop the Best,” “Insist on the Highest Standards” and “Think Big” can become toxic.
Amazon’s focus on results, innovativeness and high standards is one that companies often strive for, yet its employees were reported crying at their desks. Why were employees driven to “practically combust,” as one interviewee put it? Other companies practice Amazon’s values but don’t suffer these consequences.
To understand why ostensibly similar cultures can produce drastically different results, we must look at workplace culture through a new lens. The Times authors focused on Amazon’s cognitive culture: the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts and assumptions that guide group behavior. When people use the term “culture,” this is what they usually mean. Amazon’s troubles, however, may lie in its emotional culture: the shared affective values, norms, artifacts and assumptions that govern what employees feel, what emotions they express and which they know they are better off suppressing. In my research, I focus on this less-explored dimension of organizational culture.
Many business leaders shy from discussing emotions, which comes at a high cost to their companies. Over the past decade through research with colleague Olivia O’Neill, a management professor at George Mason University, I have found that emotional culture influences “hard outcomes” like absenteeism and financial performance, as well as employee satisfaction, burnout and teamwork. When business leaders ignore emotional culture, they overlook a fundamental part of being human and thereby stunt the potential of their companies.
It may be that a poor mix of cognitive and emotional cultural values exacerbated Amazon’s troubles. While company management seems to permit flares of joy when employees are successful, the Times report described what seems like primarily an emotional culture of fear. Fear may work short term, but it can’t support employees’ long term in the face of an outcomes-driven cognitive culture.
In a recent study conducted with O’Neill and Francesco Sguera, a professor of organizational behavior at Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, we saw the importance of having the right mix of cultural values. In a major U.S. medical center, for instance, a strong emotional culture of anxiety existed due to a very competitive external environment and anxiety-raising human resources practices, including a “point system” that chastised employees for tardiness, sick days and other minor transgressions. This Pavlovian practice led to negative outcomes like stunted financial performance, burnout and low employee satisfaction. On the other hand, in units where this anxiety was paired with an emotional culture of companionate love—affection, compassion, tenderness and caring expressed and felt among employees—financial performance and employees’ attitudes did not suffer. At this medical center, seeing these feelings expressed among staff buffered the culture of anxiety.
Additional research attests to this interplay between cultural values. In a recent study of firefighters, professors O’Neil and Nancy Rothbard, Wharton’s David Pottruck Professor, found an interaction between a culture of joviality and companionate love. Even as the firefighters played elaborate pranks on and heckled one another, if they supported one another with caring and compassion, they were able to cope with the stresses of the job more effectively. They were also better able to cope with the natural work-family conflict that arose from such an intense and often unpredictable job.
Could Amazon move away from a culture of fear and balance its exceptionally demanding cognitive culture with joy, fun, companionate love or other emotions? Perhaps, but Amazon’s organizational structure must support the new emotional culture, which is created in the micromoments, facial expressions, body language, décor, rituals and routines that permeate a workplace. Executives must verbalize, model and reward the emotions they want the organization to cultivate. In turn, middle management and front-line supervisors must transmit these emotions to their subordinates.
To enact that change, Amazon’s first practical step would be to measure its emotional culture, which, given its data-oriented cognitive culture, would be something they should be very good at. Yes, you can quantify feelings. You can do it through surveys, interviews and observations. When my colleagues and I measure emotional culture, we don’t ask how employees themselves feel but rather ask them to report on what emotions they see expressed by the colleagues around them. Emotional expression is what sets culture in motion.
By quantifying feelings, you can identify the dominant emotions in a workplace. It’s relatively easy to accentuate the positive emotions. To address pervasive negative emotions, the most important thing is to model the positive emotions you wish to propagate in the group. My research about emotional contagion has shown that emotions spread among people in groups just like a virus. Executives, managers and supervisors can spread these emotional “viruses.” They need to be aware that every time they are in a room they are doing so. When you see a group suffering from low morale, the first question to ask is how the manager enters work in the morning. Scowling or smiling? Managers and leaders often do not realize how important their own emotional expressions are to their people and how carefully they are watched.
Ultimately, companies need an emotional and cognitive culture and an organizational structure that helps them execute their strategy. Intentionally or not, Amazon seems to have created a strong culture of fear that may succeed in motivating short-term performance at the expense of long-term employee retention and performance. Amazon could temper its results orientation and strengthen a culture of companionate love. Its leaders could begin to model compassion when employees fail, struggle or suffer emotionally. A culture of joy or companionate love doesn’t mean that honest critique is going to be stifled, as Amazon’s leadership may fear.
That said, company policies and practices might clash with a change toward a culture of companionate love—such as Amazon’s performance management system and its Anytime Feedback Tool, which encourage employees to send anonymous feedback (good and bad) directly to other employees’ bosses. Mostly likely, these practices support the culture of fear. Would Amazon’s leaders be willing to change these organizational structures and others to support the new culture?
Of course, my aim here is not to fix Amazon. Rather, the point is that business leaders should give as much attention to emotional culture as they give to cognitive culture. The two will intersect and interact in ways we are just beginning to understand. To perform at their highest potential, organizations must investigate, measure and manage emotions. Even in a workplace like Amazon that self-selects hard-charging, thick-skinned people, emotions at work can’t be suppressed and denied. They are part of what makes us human and in turn influence both employee attitudes and firm performance.
An award-winning researcher and teacher, Sigal Barsade is Wharton’s Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management.
Published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Wharton Magazine.