Business

Why Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos Failed Miserably at Applying Darwinian Competition to His Business

Contrary to Amazon endorsed practices, ruthless competition doesn’t create functional organizations

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By David Sloan Wilson

Last year, a New York Times article on Amazon.com’s business practices revealed an ugly sight: employees crying at their desks, high turnover where few last beyond a year, work hours that exceed 100 hours a week are common, as are employees working on weekends, vacations, through cancer, their children’s illness and parents’ deaths. Amazon executives are quoted referring to this as “purposeful Darwinism” and justified as necessary for Amazon.com to meet the exacting standards of its founder, Jeff Bezos.

But Jeff Bezos and others who equate “Darwinism” with “ruthless competition” have it wrong. Charles Darwin, a British naturalist who was the father of evolution, never said that nature sanctioned a dog eat dog mentality. Instead he regarded sympathy as the most important and distinctive human adaptation.

While Darwin launched a brilliant idea, many aspects of evolution were worked out in future centuries. One of those is what nature teaches us about how groups work best. Contrary to Amazon endorsed practices, it is not through dog eat dog actions but cooperation.

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Evolutionists (including myself) have studied what makes humans different from our primate cousins. One widely accepted theory is that our species evolved to function as teams and to suppress selfish behavior. Teamwork requires members of a group to coordinate their activities in just the right way and to frequently perform services for each other and the group as a whole at private expense.

You might think that all of human history is too big a sample to prove the merits of such an approach. If so, take the case of an animal breeder at Purdue University, William Muir. He tried to figure out how to make chickens produce the most eggs –the 20th century equivalent of delivering an Elsa doll to a customer in 23 minutes.

He bred two groups of chickens. In both cases, he housed the hens in cages which is standard practice in the poultry industry. In the first method he did what Amazon does and picked the hardest working most productive hen within each cage to breed the next generation of hens. He put all of those in one group.

The second method involved selecting the most productive cages and using all the hens from those cages to breed the next generation of hens. It might seem that this is a subtle difference, that the same trait (egg productivity) should be selected in both cases, and that the first method should be more efficacious. After all, eggs are produced by individual hens, so why not directly select the best? Why put them in a group, when even the best groups might have some individual duds?

The results told a completely different story. The first method caused egg productivity to perversely decline, even though the most productive hens were chosen each and every generation. The second method caused egg productivity to increase 160 percent in six generations, an astonishing response as artificial selection experiments go.

The first method favored the nastiest hens who achieved their productivity by suppressing the productivity of other hens. After six generations, Muir had produced a nation of psychopaths, who plucked and murdered each other in their incessant attacks. No wonder egg productivity plummeted!

In the second approach, he selected the most productive groups and because they were already a group that worked well together, they included peaceful and cooperative hens.

Muir’s experiment proves the efficacy of group selection, at least under the conditions of the experiment.

Jeff Bezos might think that he has designed an efficient corporation by relentlessly measuring the performance of individuals and culling the herd, but this “rank and yank” system is a recipe for disruptive self-serving behaviors.

A comment on the NYT article from a recruiter at a nearby tech company said they don’t look at resumes of former Amazon employees if they were there for more than two years, showing that in the business others also regard this behavior as pathological. If Jeff Bezos learned a little more about evolution, he might do a better job avoiding these pathologies by his own choice.

Jeff Bezos is smart but even the smartest person can be misled by a false view of human nature.

One former employee described Amazon’s hiring policy as like panning for gold, throwing away vast numbers of stones in search of a few nuggets. This idea misses the point that people are products of evolutionary processes, not just operating in the past but also in the present, including their response to the corporate culture that they are joining. A company that is truly designed as purposeful Darwinism would look very different than the one Jeff Bezos has built.

2015 September 15


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  • James Pepitone

    Thank you, David, for bringing your expertise and insight to this subject. Jeff Bezos may be smart, as you say, but other than getting Darwin all wrong he gives us reason to suspect that he has a problem, yet because of his financial power he is able to ignore his problem and to recruit enablers to institutionally abuse employees and contractors with impunity, with some of the victims even rationalizing that the abuse they endure is deserved and even developmental. His rebuttal to the Times article asserts that he doesn’t see the kind of treatment being questioned, which not surprisingly is symptomatic of individuals who treat others this way.

    In contrast, the marketplace offers many examples of high performing companies in which executives treat employees at all levels with respect and courtesy, so the abuse cannot be justified as some kind of market imperative. Of course, Jeff is not the first “hard ass” CEO and he won’t be the last. The heartless, if not inhuman, treatment of employees by Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, and many other CEOs has been reported by multiple sources.

    For more insight into Jeff’s behavior, if you haven’t yet read it I urge you to use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read the introduction to the book, “The Amazon Way: 14 Leadership Principles Behind the World’s Most Disruptive Company.” Just this brief episode says enough to fill in the picture and support the Times reporting as on target. Jeff’s approach sounds less like some ill-advised management technique and more like a lack of behavioral control fueled by a disregard for others. We might wonder why otherwise self-respecting people tolerate the kind of abuse described in this firsthand account, and here’s where Jeff’s financial power seems to buy him the freedom to treat people any way that he wants to.

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  • kidmugsy

    “Contrary to Amazon endorsed practices, it is not through dog eat dog actions but cooperation.” That is why British schools used to put such emphasis on team sports. You beat your opponents by learning to co-operate with your team-mates. I take it that Mr Bezos hasn’t played much rugby or cricket?

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  • Doesn’t matter what theory, people will eventually misread and misuse it. Same happened with Adam Smith and many others. People tend to repeat memes without even trying to read (and most importantly – understand) the sources.

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