Last month, the American public got a rude awakening about what life aboard a startup rocketship could entail.
A New York Times expose on Amazon, perhaps the greatest of all $1B startup behemoths, turned the very concept of the fun, fast-paced startup workplace on its head.
The article found instances in which company culture was so toxically-obsessed with productivity, even hedge-fund managers reading the piece during their 19th consecutive hour at the office were probably appalled.
The article and ensuing public outcry sparked a lively debate (complete with an impassioned defense from Jeff Bezos himself) over the article’s merits, and, if true, what this caused such a chaotic, unhealthy work environment.
Going a step further, perhaps most sinisterly, were questions about what the environment itself portended. After all, wasn’t this the very culture that helped make Amazon America’s greatest startup success story?
The Realities of Workplace Productivity
In an excellent article for the Harvard Business Review published shortly after the Times piece, Gianpiero Petriglieri sets forth the root causes of overwork and their destructive impacts on human health.
Upon reading Petriglieri’s article, I experienced a rare, queasy feeling of enlightenment. This article was about me.
Not only that, it was a glimpse into the dark side of workplace productivity, one of the core missions of Ambition.
As such, I feel compelled to dive a little deeper into the issue of professional passion vs. overwork, healthy company culture vs. unhealthy company culture and the blurred lines that separate where the balance exists.
The Origins of Amazonian Productivity
16 months before the Times article, I got home from my 3rd day of work at Ambition and read Gawker’s original expose into the working conditions in sectors of Amazon. The article lingered with me.
In a recent conversation with a friend, I made the following distinctions between working in the startup and corporate world.
One: In the startup world, work isn’t so much a job as it is a lifestyle.
Two: Young startups inhabit a jungle-like ecosystem, where the only way to survive is to feverishly acquire resources and rise up the food chain in its territory.
Its existence is in imminent peril. Survival rates hover at a Hunger Games-esque level. By contrast, its mid-market and enterprise counterparts live relative lives of luxury.
Though they too are never fully invulnerable to attack, the mentality of these more mature companies is far less insulated from the primal feelings that create intense passion, laser-like work focus, pack-like mentality and so on in startups.
After all, in a sense, it truly is “us against the world” for many a fledgling, young company.
Amazon, by nature of its very business model, was disinclined to grow out of that mentality. That much is certain.
How Ambition Impacts Sales Productivity
So where does Ambition fit into all this? Great question.
It is first critical to note that the Petriglieri overworker, based on all the empirical data on employee engagement you’ll find in this day and age, constitutes a minority of the American workforce, 70 percent of which express feelings of disengagement in the workplace.
Among American sales professionals – the primary users of Ambition software – 29 percent reported feeling engaged, 51 percent not engaged and 20 percent actively disengaged.
Another critical distinction for sales professionals – Petriglieri rightfully points out how many companies induce greater effort and commitment from their employees not with compensation, but “future opportunities” and “the potential to showcase their talent.”
(For a prime example of the latter in action and also malevolent use of gamification, check out this infuriating 2012 expose on Bleacher Report).
In sales, however, there’s a perverse obstacle to such exploitation, i.e., the naked, unabashed, ultimate objective of every sales professional – to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.
Ambition, for our part, helps to drive productivity – but as the Harvard Business Review points out, we also function as a way to codify performance expectations, increase data visibility, improve employee recognition and collaboration, and so forth.
And no, we do not condone manipulating employees into working their asses off for the sake of a badge.
Safeguarding Against Overwork and Unhealthy Culture
I’ll end this piece by returning, lastly, to my own issues with overwork. Each person is driven by his or her own life experiences, goals and motivations. And I’ve realized what mine are and why they’ve led me to the dark side of Petriglieri productivity.
A big part of it is stated definitively in the article – the opportunity to put my talents on display. (Which is why I empathize with the Bleacher Report writers).
But ironically, what made this opportunity have such a powerful impact on my life were the 5 years I spent as a law student and graduate who felt he had veered off course with his career. My year working for a recruiting firm where I felt firmly entrenched among the 70 percent of disengaged American workers.
That’s what drives my Petriglieri productivity, among other compelling personal circumstances.
Where Jeff Bezos makes the key mistake is in his assertion: You can work long, hard or smart. But at Amazon.com, you can’t choose two out of the three.”
He’s right – technically you can’t, as critical thinking skills, focus and attention to detail become impaired and wear down after prolonged mental exertion. I can attest to that to the utmost.
But there’s one more thing I’m certain of, and it’s that I’ve felt brief periods where the unmistakable void in one’s life that comes with overwork hit me front-and-center.
I needed to volunteer. I needed to exercise. I needed to call my mom more. I felt these things on a primal level, and when I did, I acted on them – and immediately felt better.
So if you’re in my shoes and you too feel that sense of imbalance, don’t hesitate to take a day off and do three sets of things: One for someone you love, one for someone who needs help and one for yourself. You’ll feel better.
Last but not least – for those on the fence about jumping into a demanding sales/startup position, just know that I’ve experienced both sides of the coin.
And I’d choose having an intense, demanding job I’m savagely passionate about over the alternative, 100 percent of the time. Fortune favors the brave.