Amazon Is Right That Disagreement Results in Better Decisions

PC: Stephen Woods via Flickr Creative Commons

PC: Stephen Woods via Flickr Creative Commons


When I worked in the federal government, I was amazed at the large numbers of factual errors in widely-read stories, even in the best newspapers. As a colleague of mine, a staunch Democrat, observed in 2009, “I now think that at least half of the things I most disliked about the Bush Administration . . . never happened.”

I tell this little tale because the lengthy New York Timesstory, detailing some apparently brutal features of the culture at Amazon, should be taken with many grains of salt. But even if the story is full of inaccuracies, and if we put the company’s alleged harshness to one side, Amazon’s approach offers indispensable guidance for companies both large and small when they are deciding how to make group decisions.

The story suggests Amazon places immense importance on defining team players not as people who go along with the group’s consensus, or who support the status quo, but instead as those who add new ideas and perspectives. The company evidently prizes those who overturn workplace convention, as signaled by the term used on the award given to high-performing employees: “I’m Peculiar.” To be “peculiar” is to break with convention, in the sense of generating fresh perspectives and (potentially) significant reforms.

In short, Amazon discourages conformity and combats groupthink. Bosses do not just give feedback; they receive it. Disruptive thinking is welcome. Conflict and innovation are thought to march hand-in-hand. One of the company’s core principles advises employees to “disagree and commit.” The theory is that “harmony is often overvalued in the workplace” and “that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas.” Low-level employees are strongly encouraged to make major contributions. In discussions, high status is not believed to be a guarantor of correctness.

In emphasizing that harmony is often overrated, and in valuing disagreement and internal scrutiny, Amazon is acting consistently with the principal findings of decades of research in behavioral science. That research has shown that many groups, including businesses, do poorly, or at least less well than they should, because they do not take advantage of the information and the creativity of their own staffs. Led by confident (but closed-minded) leaders, they establish policies and practices and then they execute – but without sufficient internal scrutiny, either before the fact or on a continuing basis.

The complete article at

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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Posted in industry news, publishing news

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