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Don’t Tell the Boss

In response to the brouhaha about the driven, unforgiving nature of Amazon’s corporate culture portrayed by the recent article in the New York Times, Jeff Bezos, the CEO, is quoted as saying, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know…”  I am sure he is telling the truth.  The Amazon he sees around him consists of executives who are not rewarded for noticing discontent.

Such executives possess two characteristics that produce an ill-informed boss.  One is their belief that it is their duty to shield the boss from bad news.  The other is that negative feedback they hear about likely comes up through the unit they run.  If they report the problem, they may well be blamed for it.  “What are you doing over there to create such unhappy employees?”

But the phenomenon works at their level too.  Their direct reports are inclined to protect the boss from bad news and fear falling victim to the “shoot the messenger” reaction.  Just based on human nature, it is easy to see how executives can walk around blithely unaware of grumbling by the troops.

Do they not hear anything?  If the discontent is loud enough, they are bound to catch wisps of complaints.  But then another natural human reaction kicks into play – if I ignore it, maybe it will go away.  So is Jeff Bezos lying when he claims ignorance?  He may be disingenuous to express shock.  He probably was surprised by the strength of the negative sentiment expressed.  You’re not alone, Jeff, your isolation is an experience shared with many other CEOs.

Dr. Thomas Begley is dean of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.