Jeff Bezos learned a few things about leadership and human nature while transforming Amazon from a startup he founded nearly 30 years ago into the tech juggernaut it is today, with a market cap of $1.5 trillion.
People, he came to realize, are “not really truth-seeking animals.” Instead, “we are social animals,” he said. That fundamental insight has implications for how companies and indeed any organization should be structured, he believes.
Bezos made the comments on an episode the Lex Fridman Podcast posted this week. He noted that throughout human history, telling the truth could often land one in trouble.
“Take you back in time 10,000 years and you’re in a small village,” he said. “If you go along to get along, you can survive, you can procreate. If you’re the village truth-teller, you might get clubbed to death in the middle of the night.”
The reason, he continued, is that “important truths can be uncomfortable, they can be awkward, they can be exhausting…They can make people defensive even if that’s not the intent.”
And yet they can also be the difference between a company succeeding or failing, which is why Bezos believes “any high-performing organization has to have mechanisms and a culture that supports truth-telling.” That includes his space venture Blue Origin, to which he’s applying his hard-won lesson from Amazon, where he resigned as CEO a few years ago.
One strategy he suggests is for meetings: having the most senior person speak last and most junior ones go first in order to hear everyone’s opinion in an unfiltered way.
“I know from experience,” he said, “that if I speak first, even very strong-willed, highly-intelligent, high-judgment participants in that meeting will wonder, ‘’Well if Jeff thinks that, I came in this meeting thinking one thing, but maybe I’m not right.’”
He also believes leaders should openly discuss the difficulty of truth-telling with their teams. “You have to remind people it’s okay that it’s uncomfortable…that it’s not what we’re designed to do as humans…We mostly survive by being social animals and being cordial and cooperative.”
He noted that even in science, which is “all about truth-telling” and “has very formal mechanisms for it,” there are senior and junior scientists, so “there’s a hierarchy of humans where somehow seniority matters.”
He recalls a moment in Amazon’s history when customers were complaining about long wait times after they called the company’s 1-800 number, yet the metrics presented in meetings suggested those wait times were less than 60 seconds.
At one meeting, Bezos simply called the number himself, with the head of customer service present. The wait time was more than 10 minutes on that call.
“It dramatically made the point that something was wrong with the data collection,” he said. “We weren’t measuring the right thing. And that, you know, set off a whole chain of events where we started measuring it right.”
He also warned about two things that get in way of reaching the truth: compromise and stubbornness. With the former, disagreeing parties settle on something that isn’t true in order to move on. With the latter, “they just have a war of attrition, and whichever one gets exhausted first capitulates to the other one.”
Navigating around such pitfalls requires a proactive approach, he said.
“You have to seek truth even when it’s uncomfortable,” he said. “You have to get people’s attention, and they have to buy into it, and they have to get energized around really fixing things.”