The Real Culture Debate

Are the numerous and varying reactions to Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s New York Times article on Amazon’s culture really just about Amazon and its culture? Or is the real debate about whether it is acceptable—or even desirable—to create, drive, and reinforce norms and expectations for Aggressive/Defensive behavior in organizations? Based on thousands of blog posts and comments, I believe it is the latter.

At the Root of Aggressive is Defensive

In organizations, Aggressive/Defensive cultures are bred from beliefs that promoting and protecting one’s own status and security are expected, required, or necessary in order to succeed or survive.1 In classic “Maslowian” terms, they are driven by basic needs for safety and esteem from others.2 In contrast, Achievement and other types of Constructive cultures are based on beliefs that intrinsic satisfaction, self-respect and working toward the fulfillment of one’s potential are expected and supported. Whereas basic needs and higher-order needs can operate in tandem—such as when individuals or groups are expected to look better and outperform their colleagues by accomplishing an objective that requires them to work toward their potential or vice versa—one set of needs typically takes priority over the other. Because norms and expectations for Aggressive/Defensive behaviors (including Competitive, Power, Perfectionistic, and Oppositional) work against those for Constructive behaviors (such as Achievement, Self-Actualizing, Humanistic-Encouraging, and Affiliative), the primary motivation—security versus satisfaction—determines whether the outcomes of the culture will be beneficial or costly to the organization, its members, its customers, and society.

“We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us3

Aggressive/Defensive behavior has its place for example, when one faces external threats and/or is under attack as in the recent thwarted terrorist attack in France. In such situations, we go into fight (“Aggressive/Defensive”) or flight (“Passive/Defensive”) mode to protect ourselves and survive. However, as Simon Sinek points out, reminiscent of Walt Kelley’s quote from over half a century earlier, the real danger facing organizations today comes more from inside rather than outside4.

And, at the Root of the Story is the Impact of Leaders on People and Culture

Setting Amazon aside, recognizing the real reasons why we engage in the behaviors and make the choices that we do, though a critical first step, only scratches the surface of what is at issue here. Most people (including those directly involved in the Amazon debate) recognize, at least to some degree, when they primarily are acting to protect or promote themselves rather than to fulfill their potential to achieve some greater good.

The belief that leaders and managers in all organizations should know about and be held accountable for the impact or influence they have on the behavior of the people around them and the culture and subcultures they create seems to be much more at the core of the recent articles, blog postings, and discussions about Amazon.

This is certainly not the first time we’ve heard stories about leaders and managers creating aggressive cultures and promoting aggressive behavior. For example, this continues to be discussed with respect to culture in the banking industry, which, ironically, has received less interest and attention from the general public in spite of the more widespread costs and implications incurred.

Despite the volume of postings on blogs and the like, with each story and with each “new” case, we continue to come back to the same question: Is it desirable or even acceptable to create Aggressive/Defensive organizational cultures?

And the Survey Says…

Our data from organizational leaders around the world show that across as well as within countries, leaders believe in the value and importance of promoting and creating primarily Constructive cultures and, to varying degrees, the value and importance of secondarily promoting Aggressive/Defensive behaviors and cultures.

However, our data also show that, on average, leaders and managers at all levels of organizations and in all of the countries in which our surveys have been used promote less Constructive and more Defensive (including Passive as well as Aggressive) behaviors and cultures than they believe and say are ideal for their organizations to prosper over the long term.

“On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B”

This classic 1975 article by Steven Kerr, when we hire, reward, and promote leaders and managers exclusively for their attainment of short-term results without regard to their impact on people and culture, it is not surprising that at least some of them will choose to personally engage in Aggressive/Defensive behaviors and promote Aggressive/Defensive cultures.

Why not, given that defensive behaviors and cultures are easier to enact and promote than Constructive ones? And, even though Aggressive/Defensive cultures are associated with volatile or uneven financial performance, they can produce short-term success as well as the aura of higher performance. For some leaders and managers, this makes it worth the risk, particularly if they don’t plan on staying with the organization for very long.

What Do We Really Hope For?

Organizations that measure and monitor their cultures and hire, reward, develop, and promote leaders and managers who reinforce Constructive behaviors and create cultures that are consistent with their missions and their values attain great results. These organizations are also viewed by their members as great places to work.

To what extent should you and others consider culture when:

  • in the job market, making decisions about with which organizations to seek employment?
  • investing as an individual or corporation, which organizations to invest in, merge with, or purchase?
  • making purchases, which organizations to patronize as a customer?

To what extent does culture factor into your decisions—and to what extent should culture factor into your decisions? How much does culture really matter to you?


1Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics International.

2Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

3Kelly, W. (1987). Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Simon & Schuster.

4Sinek, S. (2012). Leaders eat last. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

About the Author

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Janet Szumal, PhD

Dr. Janet L. Szumal is a senior research associate for Human Synergistics Inc. and is the author of Creating Constructive Cultures, with Dr. Robert A. Cooke. She has developed various assessments and simulations including Management/Impact®, Organizational Change Challenge™, Project Management Challenge™, Performance Management Challenge™, and Cultural Change Situation™.