Amazon, Values, and the People of God

The recent New York Times article outlining the culture at Amazon created quite a stir, even prompting CEO Jeff Bezos to respond and declare the article to be inaccurate. The article read very similarly to the biography on Bezos and Amazon. In both the book and the article, the culture at Amazon is painted as intense and obsessed over their stated values. It is, however, also described as brutal, toxic, and filled with fear and backstabbing.

While one may love being a customer of Amazon, many would hate to be an employee. For example, one of the comments left in response to the article came from Dan Kreft, who served for 15 years and resigned last month. He commented:

Amazon is a great place to learn from fantastically skilled and intelligent people… It’s a thrilling place to work if you thrive on pressure and love being a part of something huge and powerful… So go ahead, Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History…but defenestrate any silly notions that you matter as a person. I wish Jeff Bezos and Company continued success, but I wonder how much more successful they could be if they would only show the same kind of obsessive care about their employees as they do about their customers. 

Two thoughts on the article about Amazon’s culture:

Value alignment is powerful.

While the study into Amazon’s culture is mostly concerning, you also see the power of uniting people around a shared mission and a shared set of values. For rabid fans of the culture, the values are a code that drives behavior, keeps mission primary, and spurs action. For some employees at Amazon, they have the values memorized, teach them to their kids, and apply them to all areas of their lives. No matter how you read this, there are folks working hard in that culture deeply committed and united around their values.

Strong cultures have foundational values that help people self-select out if they are not a fit. Jim Collins, in the appendix of Good to Great, addressed the question about the “good to great companies” being great places to work. Would you want to work at one of the companies Jim Collins highlights? Collins said that it depends. If your values match the values of the company, it is thrilling to work there. If your values do not match, even a great organization is a miserable place to work.

But the people of God are different.

As believers, we must remind ourselves, “What good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” We make a grave mistake if we emulate the rigorous culture of Amazon. While our work is for the Lord and requires our enthusiastic passion, we must view work as a gift and not a god.

We do not have to trade health for effectiveness. We can be both healthy and effective. In our ministries, our organizational values must never contradict Kingdom values. And while this is unlikely to happen on paper, the application of our values must also never trump Kingdom values. We must not value productivity over people, including those people who are in leadership and on the team. May it not be said of a staff culture in our ministries and churches, “People matter the most…unless you are on staff.”