I played football in high school and rugby in college. Both were similar in training regimen, practice schedule, and physicality; but I experienced two different leadership styles.
In football, humiliation and negative reinforcement were the tactics used to motivate us. Mistakes were publicly criticized and I was never told that I did something well. It was common for someone to be crying after we reviewed film of a previous game. I remember one time when the coach rode behind me in a golf cart while I was running letting me know how slow and fat I was. The message: you are not good enough.
Juxtapose that with my experience with rugby. We worked hard, but everything was done in a positive framework. When you missed a pass or tackle, the most common feedback was “unlucky.” Unlucky: like you are able to do better, you just messed up this time. Things that were done well were celebrated. Criticism was given one on one with tips for improvement. The message: you are good enough.
I thought of these two experiences as I read the New York Times article this past weekend about Amazon’s workplace. The article describes an environment where public criticism is encouraged, where people often cry, where employees collude to get others fired, where personal lives are secondary to production. Sounded a lot like football to me, except that you never get to hit people at Amazon.
I hope the article is wrong (Bezos and other Amazon employees have already responded). It is hard for me to imagine that the employees at Amazon could be so innovative and productive in such a harsh environment, because I know how the different leadership styles affected my capacity. In rugby, I better understood what were my strengths and what I needed to work on. I was excited and having fun while training and playing. And most importantly, I believed in myself. I was able to become a significantly better athlete, ending my “career” in an international tournament with some players in the highest division in the US.
I believe that results are better generated through a positive environment. That environment should encourage disagreement, but respectful disagreement; hard work, but not at the expense of one’s personal life; and data, but to help show the path to improvement not develop insecurity. If you believe in people’s ability on top of that, you will be able to help them unlock their potential and achieve some big things together.