Exposés of what goes on behind the scenes at large, well-known companies are guaranteed attention grabbers, so it’s no surprise that this week’s New York Times story about Amazon’s “bruising workplace” has been getting non-stop coverage.

Since the article came out, there has been some controversy about whether the findings are truly representative since they were based solely on anecdotal information and interviews. That said, there are still some issues this story brings up that ought to be discussed.

Retail is a Tough Business

First, there’s a difference between demanding bosses and mean-spirited ones. When we talk about interpersonal skills training, we don’t use the term “soft skills, and there’s a deliberate reason for this. People often misunderstand the level of leadership we are teaching when it’s referred to that way.

Retail is a tough business—probably one of the most competitive ones there is. In our negotiation programs, for example, we point out the fact that your retail strategies are visible to your competitors, and it’s not unheard of for competitors to steal your ideas and sometimes even out-execute you on them. Not only that, technology allows information to be shared around the globe in minutes. In an industry where, at any given moment, someone can take your strategy and use it to win against you, you have to be driven; there is no rest in the marketplace.

The upshot is that you can’t stay relevant with just a few folks exceeding expectations. The entire team needs to do that. And leadership plays a key role–in setting a vision that’s inspiring and then holding people accountable for the plans they committed to achieving.

These aren’t “soft” issues, but on the other hand, it doesn’t mean leaders have to be mean-spirited to get results. With the competitive and volatile nature of the industry, however, there is a risk of it heading in that direction when the skills aren’t there, and that’s where retailers need to be vigilant. Without interpersonal skills, leaders can lose their ability to empathize.

Defining What Your Culture Values

Cultural values are also important. Retailers need to be asking, Who are we as an organization? What do we value? Is that lip service, or are there real stories that show those values in action?

When I think about the customer service stories from retailers like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, they are inspiring. Did it take a lot to make those happen? Did people feel threatened to be their best in those situations?

I think it came down to having leadership that encouraged associates to want to think outside the box to exceed customer expectations. That behavior didn’t result from the threat of losing their jobs.

There are many more companies that are investing in efforts to define and refine what their cultural values are and communicating those in a variety of ways.

Think of it this way: if you’re up at 2 a.m. sending emails because you woke up with an incredible idea that you want to share, that’s an entirely different story than having a boss demand that you lose sleep until you finish reading all your emails at 2 a.m.


What do you think of the Amazon story and its implications for retailers? Share in the comments or tweet us @mohrretail.


About Michael Patrick

Michael held positions in retail management, merchandising, and human resources before joining MOHR Retail’s predecessor in 1986. In 1990 he purchased the retail division of that firm to form today’s MOHR Retail. Michael holds true to his retail roots by delivering learning that changes behavior—providing both immediate and lasting business impact. In addition to facilitating MOHR Retail training programs, he offers executive-level coaching in one-on-one sessions dealing with critical strategic issues such as succession strategies and executive team development. The author of “The New Negotiation Mindset: Guarantee A Bigger Slice,” Michael is a longstanding member of NRF as well as ISA: The Association of Learning Providers. He has a B.A. from San Diego State University, completed Master’s level work at Arizona State University, and lives with his family in New Jersey.