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Amazon’s wealth and poverty

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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An Amazon warehouse worker at the Peterborough fulfillment center in Cambridgeshire, England picks an order during Black Friday week, November 25, 2014 (Credit: AP Photo/Rex/Geoff Robinson)

Perhaps you have read the New York Times’ recent article describing the cutthroat environment at Amazon. If not, maybe you saw it on your Twitter or Facebook feed. It has gained more attention than the normal investigative journalism pieces that the Times and other newspapers regularly produce.

The article is well worth your time to read, especially since it brings up so many leadership implications. The basic theme throughout the piece is that Amazon’s practices are bizarre and relentless at best, and soul-killing and de-humanizing at worst. A variety of employees, both current and former, as well as consultants and others who worked with the organization were quoted, but the line that stands out the most is from Bo Olson, a former employee, who described his time at Amazon by saying: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

A set of “leadership principles” sets the tone for Amazon’s culture, but the Times’ writers, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, describe how they work out in practice:

“At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)”

As I was reading the article, it became clear that Amazon’s executives, most notably founder Jeff Bezos, fully buy-in to a form of relentless capitalism mixed with a strong dose of Darwinism. And who’s to stop them? In the responses I’ve seen to the piece, people are mainly frustrated and appalled that Amazon would have such a ruthless culture. There is this sense that they are stepping over invisible boundaries.

But it’s ironic that our relativistic culture would so strongly critique one of its most famous corporations. If people truly believed in relativism, they would have no other response than to say that we should just let Amazon be Amazon. They are picking their path and doing what they think is right.

Our pluralistic society offers no common ground to be able to say that Amazon’s practices are right or wrong. After all, they are not killing anyone. We have no collective ground to stand on as a culture, so ultimately, when it comes to blurred lines like this one, we can’t really say anything without being incredibly hypocritical.

However, God, in his beautiful plan for humans set forth in the early chapters of Genesis, established an order to creation that gives humans dignity and boundaries in their lives, especially as it concerns work. Work was never designed to become the sole passion of our lives. We are humans who run out of energy, who become sad and depressed, who cannot always communicate well, and who have deep reservoirs of emotions.

Amazon and many others in our contemporary era think of employees in terms of production and efficiency rather than human flourishing. If the job can be done better and faster, get rid of that person and find someone else. This attitude creates a culture of motivation based on fear. As Clay Parker Jones, one of the consultants quoted in the article says, “Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade.”

How do we find the balance between excellence, which is called for in Scripture (Colossians 3:17), and fanaticism, which is soul-destroying and ultimately chains us to the idol of work?

I’m convinced that is one of the areas where leaders need to be most attentive to their cultures. There is no fast answer to that question, but there is wisdom, if we will seek it. How we treat our employees and the kind of culture we create is a responsibility that Christian leaders must think deeply about.

Dallas Willard offers a helpful start. He is quoted as saying “you must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” How can you help guide and lead your organization to be a place where God is honored if your life is a chaotic mess where you have no time to listen and commune with God?

Don’t buy in to the “more is always better” maxim. Stop and rest. Learn how to say “no”. Amazon might be one of the richest corporations in the world, but it is impoverished in its view of human flourishing. Let God’s Word be your guide, not your bottom line.