What Jeff Bezos learned from Chairman Mao

Story highlights

  • A New York Times article describes Amazon's brutal workplace as purposefully Darwinian
  • Andre Spicer: Amazon uses techniques similar to tactics used during China's Cultural Revolution

Andre Spicer is a professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, City University London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)By now, you may have heard that Amazon is where "overachievers go to feel bad about themselves."

It's not surprising when so many bright people join the world's biggest online retailer. But what's surprising is the extent to which a company can be so soul-crushing.
The company's modus operandi is "purposeful Darwinism," according a recent in-depth New York Times article. Insights collected from more than a hundred former and current employees suggest that Amazon is a brutal workplace where taking weekends and evenings off, not working during holidays, or receiving some slack after a serious illness seem to be a problem.
    Andre Spicer
    Jeff Bezos, the company's founder and CEO, has responded to the Times article by saying, "I don't recognize this Amazon."
    Bezos likes to portray Amazon as a machine for creating the future. This might be so. But like any vision of the future, it has some striking similarities to the past.
    Amazon uses techniques that eerily resemble some of the tactics that Mao Zedong used during the Cultural Revolution in China.
    Central to Amazon's performance management system is a process of continuous feedback and harsh criticism. Employees are given information about their performance using hundreds of metrics, and they have to submit themselves to barrages of criticism. Sometimes, employees are encouraged to submit praise or criticism of their co-workers to management through the Anytime Feedback Tool. Employees are even asked to critique their own performance.
    Now, when we think about Chairman Mao, the image that comes to mind is his little red book, which was distributed all over China as a means of influence. While the book's slogans served to turn skeptics into ardent supporters, it was Mao's creation of a system of self-criticisms that made the Cultural Revolution so chilling.
    Mao's system was based on simple principles. First, you encouraged any grievances against people who did not follow the Communist Party line. For instance, if you had a minor conflict with the local landlord, this flame was fanned. There were also intense group discussions where people were encouraged to expose all their inner thoughts and feelings. During these sessions, people were prodded to relentlessly criticize themselves and others.
    When group members did expose themselves to criticism, leaders rewarded them. The small groups also served as a venue for people to relate Maoist ideology to their own lives. Behind all this lurked an unmistakable threat: If you did not follow the program, you would be expelled from the party. It also led to paralyzing factional struggles, public humiliation, shocking abuses of human rights and an overwhelming cult of personality around Mao.
    If we consider the stories about life inside of Amazon, it seems as though Bezos may have unwittingly used some of Mao's ideas. Employees are told to forget the poor habits they learned from previous workplaces. There are intensive group discussions where employees are encouraged to tear apart their peers' ideas and engage in vocal self-criticism.
    If people show they're willing to engage in this kind of process, they may be rewarded with positive performance appraisals by their managers. To fit in with this challenging culture, you need to buy into company doctrines such as the 14 Amazon leadership principles. You need to make them a central part of your life. Behind all this pressure is the constant threat that if you don't buy in, then you are likely to find yourself out of a job.
    Clearly, there are also huge differences between Amazon and Mao's China. For one thing, the online retailer isn't anywhere close to violating human rights.
    But Bezos and Mao have been amazingly successful with this recipe for converting people to their cause.
    Bezos has built one of the world's most admired businesses. Mao created the world's largest modern state. The systems that both men produced have problems. Mao's Cultural Revolution profoundly damaged a generation of Chinese people. Amazon has created, according to reports, a cadre of conformist "Ambots" and nasty "Amholes."
    We must remember that Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution eventually gave way to its "great opening-up" and reforms under Deng Xiaoping. The big question is: Who will be Bezos's Deng?