How Can Amazon Win Over New York City?

Joel Brockner, the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business, highlights five ways that organizations can effectively make change happen.

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Based on research by Joel Brockner
Protestors decry Amazon's plan to build a 4-million-square-foot office park in Queens, New York.
Image Credit: Scootercaster / Shutterstock

For years, Amazon.com has sold The Process Matters by Joel Brockner, the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business.

Had the e-commerce giant also internalized many of the book’s lessons, the company may have avoided some of the ongoing turmoil surrounding its recent announcement to build a 4-million-square-foot office campus in New York City.

Process fairness has a huge impact on how people react to organizational events and decisions, be it when a new leader is chosen or a new headquarters is picked, according to Brockner. The management professor boils down a high-quality change process to this conceptual formula: Change = (D x V x P) > R. In the equation, D stands for surfacing dissatisfaction, V refers to providing a vision, P is for the process of transitioning from the current state to future state, and R refers to peoples’ resistance to the change. If D, V, or P are not handled well (receiving a score of 0), then the forces for change will always be less than the resistance to it.

“The formula is a way of communicating that all four elements need to be handled well by the agents of change,” says Brockner.

Given ongoing criticisms that Amazon’s process of moving to Queens does not appear entirely fair, as it is bypassing the city council’s normal land use reviews as well as skirting state legislative approval, Amazon and New York leaders may have some public relations to do. Here, Brockner highlights five ways that companies can effectively make change happen — with takeaways for how Amazon might have avoided (and might still get out of) its tangle in New York.

“Regardless of whether you are working at a Fortune 500 company, at a government agency, or at a nonprofit organization, and regardless of the substance of the change (e.g., whether your organization is trying to grow or to downsize), the principles for getting the process right are much more similar than they are different,” as Brockner writes.

Make the Case for Change

Two ways for communicating the need for change are the “burning platform” approach, which argues that an organization is on a negative trajectory and will fail without a new tact, and the “going for gold” approach, which argues that an organization can go from good to great with appropriate change.

Both approaches could be read in Amazon’s announcement on November 13. Governor Andrew Cuomo took the “going for gold” approach in proclaiming, “New York can proudly say that we have attracted one of the largest, most competitive economic development investments in US history.” Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, used something of a “burning platform” argument by focusing on the need to prevent a negative economic trajectory, saying, “This is a giant step on our path to building an economy in New York City that leaves no one behind” (italics added). 

However, both visions lacked enough urgency to get buy-in from many people, including local politicians, neighborhood residents, and the press. As Brockner writes in his book, “Managers who are trying to make change happen sometimes lose track of the fact that their employees are not as up to speed on the reasons for the change as they are.”

Develop A Vision

An ambitious vision needs to be effectively communicated. Brockner recommends sending your message repeatedly and in different forums, such as in newsletters, town hall meetings, and informal encounters with constituents.

Communication needs to be two-way. “For employees to arrive at a common understanding of the future direction of their company, they also need to be able to ask questions about the future direction,” according to The Process Matters.

It is also important to show people how they play a role in helping to bring about the change. “In short,” according to Brockner, “the challenge and opportunity for change agents is not only to craft an inspirational vision but also to remind people of the reciprocal relationship between themselves and the attainment of the vision.

In other words, Amazon shouldn’t have assumed that New Yorkers would be thrilled about the development, especially when it came at a clear cost of $3 billion in tax breaks plus with the social costs of gentrification. To justify it, a greater vision that shows people what’s in it for them needed to be communicated. “You have to be customer-centric,” Brockner says.

Line Up Political and Social Sponsorship

While Amazon lined up sponsorship from the mayor and governor, the plan failed to secure support from many key leaders. The city council speaker initiated a series of hearings to determine if New York “got played.” Newly elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Amazon should not “receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need more investment.” Such voices fueled skepticism of the Amazon’s move.

“The fact that organizational change promotes uncertainty and that people take cues from others especially in the face of uncertainty suggests that a high-quality change process is one that marshals the power of social influence,” according to Brockner. “It’s kind of like a snowball rolling downhill. If you can get some [highly influential] people onboard with the change early on then others are more likely to follow suit; before too long you will have generated social momentum for the change.”

The opposite is also true: Without key people, social momentum can build against the change. “If the opinion leaders are onboard with the change they will help you spread the gospel,” writes Brockner. “And if they are not onboard they have a lot of power to block you in your efforts.”

Communicate, Involve and Be Honest

Even the best vision can be misinterpreted, which is why it’s essential for leaders to know how change is experienced by those affected.

“At the end of the day,” according to Brockner, “no matter how eloquent your communication about change may be, it is not simply what you said or how you said it that matters. What drives people is what they heard, which means that you have to know not only what they heard but also how they are responding to what they heard.”

This requires a leader to assess how people interpret his or her vision, be it by following up with one-on-one meetings, question-and-answer periods, or town hall-style sessions where affected people not only can hear their leaders’ vision but also indicate what they understood it to mean.

Help People Separate from the Past

People more easily embrace change when their old way of life is acknowledged and commemorated. To help people separate from the past, Brockner recommends holding a ceremony that pays due respect for the past.

A common example of this type of “letting-go” ceremony is when a sports team says goodbye to a player or to an old stadium. In Boston, for example, after the Bruins hockey team played its final match in a decrepit but beloved arena known as The Garden, a number of the team’s current retired stars took to the ice and skated around the rink in front of teary fans.

For residents of Queens, a parting ceremony might take the form of a ribbon-cutting or the dedication of a plaque or statue to commemorate the old neighborhood. Notes Brockner: “If we recognize the value of ceremony during times of change in our personal lives, change agents may do well to use them more frequently during times of organizational change to help people separate from the past.”

About the researcher

Joel Brockner

Within the broader field of organizational behavior, Professor Brockner is well known for his work in several areas, including the effects of organizational downsizing...

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