2 Ways Amazon Failed Real-Time Feedback

An engine of efficiency, Amazon’s quest to become the world’s largest retailer by creating a culture of data-driven decision-making has recently exposed its shortcomings in optimizing one of the most important aspects of employee productivity: real-time feedback.

In the much discussed article published by the New York Times about the bruising culture of Amazon, employees criticize the use of the Anytime Feedback Tool, a widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about their coworkers directly — and secretively — to management. Current and former employees of Amazon collectively agree: The tool enabled unidentified colleagues to game the system by forming groups to sabotage each other in order to survive the “rank and yank.”

It’s easy to decry real-time feedback tools given the stories that emerged from Amazon’s culture yet time and again research shows that real-time feedback is crucial to performance improvement. “Managers often assume they give enough feedback or that people naturally know how well they are doing. But our studies show that the best managers around the world provide feedback regularly. Expectations are set and continually clarified through ongoing performance feedback and recognition,” says Jim Harter, Ph.D., chief scientist, workplace management and wellbeing for Gallup’s workplace management practice.

How did the structure of the feedback system in such a high-performing company like Amazon fail to deliver on a productive feedback culture?

1. Anonymous Feedback Reduces Accountability

While anonymity may appear to be a shield for brutal honesty, research shows that the drawbacks are severe:

  • Anonymity allows employees to give negative feedback for political reasons, rather than to help the recipient improve
  • Anonymity allows employees to criticize rather than give constructive feedback
  • Anonymity often attracts a pool of people who skew the results–but cannot be tracked
  • Anonymity can lead to misinterpretation and prevents thorough follow-ups from being conducted

The combination of these factors leads to a counter-productive lack of accountability and even more alarming–an erosion of trust in the workplace. “Ratings may be inaccurate, biased, or even self-serving — but without survey-taker identification it’s impossible to determine how each member responded and why. Identifying specific behaviors that need to change requires that members talk directly with each other about what they might do differently,” says Roger Schwarz in the Harvard Business Review.

2. Behind-the-Back Feedback Breeds Politics

The second critical error in Amazon’s feedback system is the opportunity for employees to send feedback directly to their colleagues’ manager instead of directly to the colleague. Another feature in their feedback system which breaches trust within the workplace, giving employees the ability to avoid direct feedback creates a hornet’s nest of politics.

The same way employees are responsible for delivering results, they should also be trained to be accountable for giving good, critical feedback. Thus, allowing employees to avoid giving direct feedback actually exacerbates any existing problematic situation by reducing transparency, precluding accountability, and reducing validity.

Most importantly, allowing employees to avoid giving feedback directly to each other results in a major missed opportunity: letting employees learn directly from feedback so that they can improve.

Anonymity and indirect feedback ultimately contributed to a toxic culture of feedback at Amazon that could have created counter-productive results.

How to Successfully Implement a Real-Time Feedback Program

To effectively implement a real-time feedback systems, the system must be designed to promote direct, real-time feedback amongst the workforce that reinforces a culture of providing feedback purely to help one another improve performance in the workplace. Making the feedback direct and non-anonymous are two huge keys to creating a highly valuable system that is avoiding one that can be toxic and harmful.

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