Why the Amazon Model Cannot and Should Not be Applied to the Public Sector

I am fascinated with the idea that organizations, like people, have unique personalities that shape the way in which they operate, and the degree to which they are successful. Hence I read the recent New York Times article on Amazon’s organizational culture with some interest. Basically, Amazon sounds like a terrible place to work. People are encouraged to stab each other in the back, undermine colleagues and bosses, and generally “succeed” by ensuring that others fail.

Of course, Amazon is a private company and is free to cultivate a hostile workplace where crying in your office is a common occurrence. What I do not understand, is why the heck would anyone want to work there? Ok, I guess I kind of get it. If you survive you are well compensated, and ambitious people likely see surviving a job at Amazon as a badge of honor. However, its toxic culture goes against a great deal of research (in the public sector at least) linking positive cultures to performance gains.

Gerald Gabris, Kimberly Nelson, Douglas Ihrke (my Ph.D. advisor), Robert Golembiewski, Brian Cherry, Nate Grasse, myself, and others have all published articles on the link between positive group dynamics and public performance. To oversimplify a bit, boards and organizations that minimize negative types of conflict (like relationship conflict between two people), establish a culture of trust and ownership, and establish clear separation of duties between the executive and staff, are generally higher performing. I also think these are organizations where people actually want to work. Excuse the anecdote, but in my experience I have found myself more productive in organizational situations in which the culture was open and honest. It did not mean I was always in agreement with everyone, but rather I felt comfortable voicing my disagreement openly, and was not offended when others voiced their disagreement openly with me.

I guess the larger issue is job satisfaction. Where does it come from? It is a question I ponder with my students, and I find, those interested in public service are motivated by a diverse set of factors that go beyond money. They want to get paid, of course, but they are cognizant that the money likely will be lower in public service. Now, plenty of people (I’d suspect most) in the private sector have motivations that go beyond money. The difference is that in the private sector, someone whose only objective is paycheck maximization can be satisfied. If that is your only motivation and you enter public service, it is time to reevaluate your decision.

Despite my misgivings, the Amazon model is driving profits and innovation. This could be the result of their charismatic leader, their ability to tap into a subset of workers to whom this culture appeals, or something else. However, from my point-of-view the Amazon story reveals less about what works in management and more about the difference between management in the public and private sector. The public sector serves broader society, hence its mission, its culture, and its employees must work to be representative of, and at the very least tolerant of, that broader society. This is accomplished not by rigid extremes and ruthless competition, but open and moderate administration from the board level on down. It sounds kind of boring and it will not be the subject of a New York Times article, but it is what makes our public organizations legitimate and accountable to our diverse society.

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