You are not your culture

Over the weekend, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfelt published a piece on the culture at Amazon.

I’ve seen responses fall in three primary categories:

1) The necessity / truth in this reporting, and the need to create better conditions.
2) The idea that this isn’t true (anymore) or the story is sensationalist.
3) The idea that even if this is true, an extreme environment is necessary to do amazing work.

One of the key topics in the piece is about how forceful and direct the feedback culture is. Doing great work does require constructive feedback. Ben covered this nicely in Stratechery (paid, and highly recommended).

He particularly drew from this New Yorker article, and in particular this passage:

Jobs replied, “Why would you be vague?,” arguing that ambiguity was a form of selfishness: “You don’t care about how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you.” Ive was furious, but came to agree. “It’s really demeaning to think that, in this deep desire to be liked, you’ve compromised giving clear, unambiguous feedback,” he said.

From what I can tell (article aside), Amazon does have a culture that encourages constructive and clear feedback on work. This is not surprising. That’s been true everywhere I worked. I receive and give feedback for Blade Travel every day. People who work in technology often defend the right to give clear and constructive feedback on work — preferably absent of politics.

So if we are so defensive of our right to give blunt feedback on products — why can’t we do the same with culture?

“Culture” is where we still struggle with the distinction between “critiquing my work” and “critiquing me.”

When I started my career as a PM it was hard to separate “critiquing my spec” and “critiquing me.” (You can easily substitute code/design for “spec” here). It felt like every constructive comment was something I should have seen in advance. I cried more than once after spec reviews. Like most, with more experience, I moved away from that.

Cultural critique is a more abstract version of the same concept. We have a harder time with it. It’s because we talk so much about how founders set the culture for the company. Yes, founders do help create the culture. Founders are not the culture. Jeff Bezos is not Amazon’s culture.

If the NYT published a piece talking about how the Echo was “the most useless product ever” we would not have reacted as vehemently. We would have used it as a jumping off point for the conversation about the product and how it will improve, and where it will go. It would not have been right/wrong or good/bad. It would not have felt so personal.

To build better companies, we need to get there. We need to accept that Amazon’s culture is something that can be critiqued — the same way a product can be critiqued.

It is not personal, even if it feels that way right now.