Is Jeff Bezos Evil?

He seems like such a nice guy in interviews. But when you get behind the mask, Jeff Bezos is a very tough customer. In some ways similar to Steve Jobs (who may have been even tougher). So is this a bad thing or is this toughness — or if you want to be more polite, competitiveness — a necessary condition for success?

It is a critical question and the answer is more complex than it appears on the surface. First we should separate out nastiness from toughness. Being nasty is destructive of firm culture. As Sharpe put it in the TV series “Flogged men don’t stand and fight”. So we are not talking about deliberately causing embarrassment or pain (as former GE CEO, Jack Welch apparently enjoyed doing to his top managers).  But ruling out nastiness is just the first step.

The other extreme, softness, is equally ineffective. Sorry Roger Fisher and Bill Ury, when you are always striving to build relationships based on rational interest correlating, you can get royally “owned”. Just ask Barrack Obama about his experience “negotiating” with Congressional Republicans about raising the debt ceiling.

The fact is that Bezos and Jobs and other “tough customers” understand something about conflict. It is not always bad. Certain types of conflict  — those that produce higher stakes in collaboration — are needed to build focus. There is no way around this.

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