Why Jeff Bezos didn’t recognize his company, and how it can happen to you

by on August 18, 2015 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

Any leader who has watched with irritation or dismay as his or her directions get misinterpreted and/or misapplied will have an idea of how Jeff Bezos feels.

The Amazon CEO had to do some defensive PR after The New York Times published a major piece of investigative journalism skewering the culture at the giant online retailer, describing a place where criticism was so harsh and demands so unrelenting that employees regularly were seen crying at their desks.

Bezos said that if the company were really the way the Times portrayed it, and he were an employee, he’d be out the door, and anyone else would be “crazy to stay.” Bezos also said he didn’t recognize the company described in the article. And he urged employees to go to HR if they felt bullied or abused, and spoke of “zero tolerance” for any lack of empathy displayed by managers or employees toward their co-workers.

Unless we’re to conclude that Jeff Bezos is the world’s biggest hypocrite, a leader who actually fosters venomous management practices in the name of creativity and productivity — and there’s no reason to think that — we have to ask ourselves, “How on earth did the man’s company get to be a place he himself doesn’t recognize?”

A key practice
That’s a big question, and one with lots of ramifications. But if we look at one key practice within Amazon, we might have a start toward an answer.

The Times describes an app called the Anytime Feedback Tool that Amazon’s leadership encouraged employees to use as a way of letting managers know anonymously when and if co-workers were letting the team down or otherwise not providing a fully engaged effort. Bezos himself, the Times reported, has supported such technologies in the past by investing in them.

This kind of feedback makes sense, of a sort, as a way of actualizing what the Times describes as Bezos’s vision of the company as “a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another ‘even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.’”

That’s the managerial directive — people and ideas competing, co-workers challenging one another.

How did this turn into what the Times, summarizing multiple employee descriptions of the reality of the anonymous feedback, termed “a river of intrigue and scheming,” where employees made “quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once…”?

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Maybe the problem, so apparently complex, is in fact quite simple. We all pay lip service to the importance of face-to-face communication. We all know, in theory, how modern technologies can get in the way of actual human contact, can all too easily substitute for just plain sitting down and talking with someone.

Maybe in Amazon’s case, the top leadership’s admirable desire to foster a high-creativity, high-performance workplace became diluted and even poisoned as it filtered down through layers of electronic communication and anonymous electronic feedback. (Amazon does have plenty of actual meetings, but according to the Times article, lots of the communication that employees found distressing came in the form of texts and e-mails, as well as the faceless, nameless feedback.) Maybe Amazon’s top managers didn’t spend enough time with their subordinates putting a human face on what management was trying to do.

And maybe, just maybe, Jeff Bezos himself didn’t spend enough time on the old chestnut “managing by walking around.” You have to think that if he’d seen those people crying at their desks, he might have wanted to know what was going on.

In your organization, you probably have a set of principles you’ve clearly communicated to your employees. You probably know exactly how you expect those principles to be put into action. But unless you walk around and talk to people — and demand that your managers do the same — you may not know whether what you want and expect is what you’re getting.

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