Culture and Purpose: Below the Surface of Sears’ and Amazon’s Culture

culture purpose below surface

Disturbing employee quotations

“He would find a hole in the data and then explode.”

“I would see people practically combust.”

“There are so many people running for the door not just because the ship is sinking, but because the captain of the ship is screaming at them, blaming it on them, and telling them it’s their fault.”

“The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”

“You learn how to diplomatically throw people under the bus.”

You might be excused for thinking these quotations stem from some terrifying, corporate Ayn Rand winner-takes-all hell-hole where fear, intimidation, and bullying ruled the day. Ironically, these quotations come from employees of two of the most famous retailers on the planet.

And despite the (alarming) similarity in the quotations, one is in stratospheric ascent …

ascending amazon

While the other, by all accounts, is about to become a sad footnote in the retail history books.


Of course, I’m talking about Amazon and Sears, and there’s no prize for guessing which stock ticker belongs to whom.

Case in point, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is purported to have made over a billion dollars in one day from all the Alexa hoopla at CES in January of this year. Not too shabby for a place where employees practically combust.

amazon go

To further highlight the dichotomy, many consider Amazon to be on an enviable track to become a trillion dollar company and it’s certainly rolling out a rapid-fire slew of innovations (Dash, Alexa) and PR-worthy concepts (GO, Blue Origin).

Also, in the type of folklore usually reserved for Silicon Valley start-ups not billion dollar companies, it hasn’t shied away from “failing fast” (Fire) either. Conversely, at Sears, sales are down 37% since early 2013, its debt load has spiked to over $1.6 billion, and the company is losing well over $1 billion annually.

So, on the surface, you could read these employee comments and conclude that both organizations have toxic cultures. But if the cultures are equally “toxic,” how is one organization a leader while the other is undoubtedly a laggard?

The primary differentiator
Well, we could start by taking a hard look at how each organization defines their organizational Purpose. Amazon’s focus on Pioneers is a highly motivating call-to-arms, which is likely backed up throughout the organization’s deployment of resources, technology, and systems. And, most importantly, is equally motivating to Amazon employees.

In contrast, Sears description reads like a lackluster focus on operating efficiency, returns on shareholder value and other financial measurements. Speaking purely for myself, the “Wow!” experience articulated is one I’ve seldom seen from my interactions with any part of the brand. And the irony of “Be the world’s best retailer” signals an organization grossly out of touch with today’s market.

Culture AND climate
Perhaps the other issue is that we’re using the culture term haphazardly. And, perhaps, we’re not acknowledging some key nuances and learning between Amazon and Sears.

For example, when we discuss Culture, we often point to phenomenon like remote working, open plan offices, bring your pet to work environments, sushi Fridays and a proliferation of foosball tables as reflective of an open and progressive culture, add in employee engagement surveys and you’re really rocking.

But Culture is more nuanced and complex than this. The good folks over at Culture University talk about the differences between “climate” and “culture” and, you guessed it, all those attributes above aren’t culture cues, they’re measures of organizational climate. Just because management insists that trust develops at the annual picnic, it doesn’t mean you’re working in a trusting culture.

Founder Impact
Cultures where the founder still walks the halls (Amazon) operate with an entirely different dynamic than one’s where the founders passed away decades earlier. When the guy whose name is figuratively on the door still presides over who gets blessed and who gets banished, there is little incentive to change the way things are gonna get done. Less than zero if the organization has a history of success. Look at how people describe the vaunted culture of innovation at Apple under founder Steve Jobs versus under CEO Tim Cook—and that’s only in the space of five years!

Then there’s the issue—as I did myself at the start of this post—of evaluating and labeling a culture “good,” “bad,” “progressive,” or “toxic” without evaluating it against the fundamental business criteria that matter … Is the Culture accelerating or impeding the execution of the organization’s strategy?

After all, as acclaimed Culture expert Edgar Schein points out, “The purpose of a company is not to create a nice workplace culture but to function in the economy, to provide goods and services” There is no debate that cultures that tolerate employee abuse or engage in unethical behavior have no place in a civilized society but equally, I would argue, a culture of civility where strategy execution grinds to a halt because of consensus building and bureaucracy is equally bad. Peter Drucker was never more insightful, nor eloquent than his famous quip: “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.”

Perhaps the final word is best left to Jeff Bezos who, in trying to counter the scathing New York Times article, had this to say in defense of the Amazon culture:

“The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one — just that it’s ours — and over the last two decades, we’ve collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful.”

What are your views on the difference between Amazon and Sears?
How significant, or insignificant, is the Cultural aspect in the success of one and the failure of the other? Is it appropriate to use the “toxic” word in describing both?

If you’re interested in reading deeper into the articles that spurred this post, the Amazon examples sprang from a New York Times expose in August 2015, and the Sears examples come from a story covered by Business Insider in January 2017.

Key Questions

  • Does our organization have a Purpose that inspires and motivates our employees?
  • Is that Purpose used as a consistent guide for our internal communications and also how we structure our teams and operations?
  • Can we articulate our Purpose in a set of abiding Values that we hold Leadership (and all employees) to?

I welcome your comments and ideas below.


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Hilton Barbour is a brand and marketing strategist with 20 years of International experience in technology, packaged goods, professional services and hospitality sector. During his career, he consulted with some of the most iconic and respected businesses in the world, earning a reputation for being a thought-provoking and insightful collaborator.

Hilton combines an insatiable curiosity and drive with a profound belief that today’s brands can only succeed if they marry Strategy, Culture, and Purpose. Working at the intersection of those three areas is where he delivers the most impact. Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything,” which he finds useful for traversing today’s thorny and uncertain business climate.

To contact Hilton directly, connect with him on LinkedIn.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Saunjuli

    I/O student here, but still in the very beginning so still trying to “find my purpose”. First of all great article! I really enjoyed how you turned a negative work environment into a questionable theory…it really made me re-think what negative work environment meant to me. As we all know in psychology we aren’t there to give opinions but to study each opinion and why its valid. When you said one company (Amazon) was about pioneering and the other was about old strategy I would have to hole heatedly agree. I literally just wrote an entire paper for college on old retailers and new retailers. Ive been in retail for 17 years, old retailers are like the grandfather we try to get to listen to Drake…. he just can’t understand how Drake is “music” and how he is so popular in music today.The lesson is it doesn’t matter that music has changed drastically, the fact is the consumer is changing and how are we ready to receive them to stay in business another 100 years? I understand in business when you are doing something good and its worked then why re-invent the wheel, but some of these organizations really need to update their vision especially if the “bottom line” is proving the idea is obsolete. It’s true that every organization has its own personality and character, and for employees to stay and feel accomplished and successful in those places they really need to share the vision and idea no matter the opinion of others. i suppose that’s why so much research has gone into making friends at work and the effects on churn and employee satisfaction. Now “toxic” really is the truth, when Amazon had EMS/paramedics outside of a distribution center while the temperature rose outside and the A/C didn’t work, as well as policy and procedure when someone has a heart attack or medical emergency at the work place. Just call 911, we have learned that since grade school and it shouldn’t be any different in the work place! ( those articles are readily available on the internet if your wondering what I’m talking about”) I feel the concept of Amazon has really been successful, but the internal stuff needs to get better if they expect to grow ad prosper. Without employees none of Amazon would be successful just make the basics good so they dont need to protest in Germany!