The Mistakes Of Writing About Company Culture

Recently the New York Times published an article called Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. It describes Amazon as a tough place to work. Many Amazon employees have rejected the article and written responses critiquing its claims (including an open letter by CEO Jeff Bezos).

Having never worked there I can’t comment on where the truth lies in this story (Amazon has a reputation in Seattle for being hard on employees, but many tech companies do). But as a writer of several books (See The Year Without Pants) and many essays about culture (See A Critique of Don’t Fuck Up The Culture), I’ve learned the common mistakes writers make when writing about culture and some are at work in the discussion the article generated.

  1. Culture is not uniform. There’s a cognitive bias we have of oversimplifying other groups of people. “Americans are X” or “People who work at Ford are Y”. Any large group of people will have sub-cultures, and they’ll often vary significantly. This is inconvenient when writing about a company, a city, or a nation. The same company can have a great division to work in and a horrible one (for example, the plight of Amazon’s low wage workers is likely more problematic than that of it’s white collar staff). It’s convenient for writers to work with the broadest of brushes which often leave wider, sloppier strokes than they realize. There is pressure from editors and readers to have a convenient and simplified singular story about what an entire culture of thousands of different people is like, as if it were possible at all.
  2. We confuse strong opinions with accurate facts. Oversimplifications are fun generate responses. They draw attention. People who hated working at Amazon can point to an article like this one say “See! I was right!” And they might have been, at least about their own experience. But what’s far harder to measure is how their individual experiences compared with everyone else’s experience. Those most interested in contributing to an article about a company, and possibly even to write the article itself, are people with strong opinions. The stories they tell will land harder than milder, and perhaps more accurate, reports. Corporations generally don’t want their unfiltered truths shared, as that’s why they pay their PR and marketing teams. Amazon has earned a reputation for being unfriendly to the media and I suspect that’s an influence on the NYTimes article. But relying solely on facts and studies is problematic too, as in their quest for clinical rigor and sample sizes writers miss the stories needed to explain a culture to outsiders.
  3. Culture is local to each boss. Every boss creates their own subculture. They have the power to ignore some rules and invent their own. Good bosses are defined in part by their ability to protect employees from roadblocks above and around them, creating a pocket of trust, healthy feedback and productive teamwork. This means it’s hard to capture a culture without studying two different teams in different parts of a company. By studying comparative culture it’s likely revealed that teams contradict each other in important values, but share others. It’s counterintuitive, but you make better sweeping observations as a writer by getting intimate with the small scale, at least for a time. It’s often impossible for journalists to do this (which was why I took three years to do participatory journalism, working at to write The Year Without Pants about the company culture).
  4. People have different cultural preferences. There is no perfect company to work for. Many 24 year old graduates of high powered competitive universities seek demanding workplaces. I did when I was that age. I did not want work/life balance. And I did not want to work with people who didn’t share my full commitment to trying to make great things. At the time I liked the fact that Microsoft had a reputation similar to Amazon’s (see this 1989 article about Microsoft titled “Velvet Sweatshop or High Tech Heaven“, which is entertaining in how little some things haven’t changed). This doesn’t justify cruel behavior or bad management (of which both Microsoft and Amazon have a history of). Nor am I trying to defend what I wanted from work then as being right for everyone. Instead my point is there are dozens of factors, from salary, to pride, to working hours, to commute time, to benefits, to quality coworkers, that make a workplace desirable or not and many are highly subjective. Some of the misery in the working world is caused by a mismatch of person and culture, or person and their boss, rather than a flaw in the company itself.



9 Responses to “The Mistakes Of Writing About Company Culture”

  1. Na

    “We confuse strong opinions with accurate facts.”

    Here is a an article that takes a data vs anecdotes approach on Amazon Vs Peer Group companies (Microsoft, Google etc…) on engineering employee ratings of their companies using data. Amazon is in the same bracket as Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft etc…

  2. Luigi Spagnolo

    Of course a culture is not uniform, and is characterized by sub-cultures. But these sub-cultures are more or less allowed to grow depending on the “ecosystem” created by the broader culture.

    Of course is a bad stereotype to depict Americans as violent “cowboys” o Rambos, but it is a fact that, for historical reasons, “American culture” tollerates or even promotes the possession of weapons. And, of course, this has effects on the whole society or at least on a part of it.
    On the other hand, the hippie “sub-culture”, even if in contrast with the mainstream belief, would have neven rised in the context of a totalitarian regime.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I agree that stereotypes are sometimes, but not always, rooted in truth. Even when they are rooted in the truth, they can often be rooted in the past and have less validity in the present. The work of good writing and research is to carefully work to avoid the traps I mentioned.

  3. Phil Simon

    Amazon’s been a big target for 20 years. It’s obvious to me that anyone can find horror stories, but that’s true at any iconic business. I’ve heard people describe Google as incredibly bureaucratic while others sing its praises.

    I found the data element of the Times’ piece fascinating, especially as it relates to culture. It turns out that data can one hell of a sword.

  4. Butler Reynolds

    Excellent points. When I worked for a company of < 70 employees, just changing the person I reported to (while doing the exact same job) was as significant as changing the company I worked for.



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