Amazon created a firestorm back in 2015, highlighted in a New York Times exposé, by launching an "Anytime Feedback Tool" that allowed employees to give anonymous feedback to anyone at any time. The article, which received blowback from Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, and employees alike, portrayed Amazon as a hyper-competitive and "bruising" place to work -- a place where cancer can derail your career and people routinely cry at their desk.
The Times described the feedback feature as a "...widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. (While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.)"
Amazon fought back, saying it's just, "another way to provide feedback, like sending email or walking into a manager's office," and contends that the majority of submitted feedback is positive. But according to NYT's sources, it's "a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others... described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews."
Fast forward to 2018 and the reviews are still mixed despite Amazon's tweaks. Employees now answer Q&A queries daily through an app called Connections, and the company encourages positive feedback over negativity.
While I'm a huge believer in the power of feedback, I have to agree that Amazon’s “Anytime Feedback” feels dirty and unproductive. Real-time feedback is indeed an incredibly powerful tool that addresses employee concerns and helps organizations to implement meaningful changes. But it has to be used correctly to make a real impact.
Here are the four things you can do to make sure feedback fulfills its promise in your organization:
Hidden behind a veil, humans behave badly. You don't have to look far to watch anonymity become poisonous---just read the comment thread below any widely viewed YouTube video. There's a growing body of evidence proving anonymity breeds incivility. A recent study found that 53 percent of anonymous online comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane, or hateful while non-anonymous commenters were nearly three times as likely to post civil comments.
"But wait," you say, "doesn't anonymity allow people to surface their opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be?" Yes. But, the cost is too high. Sure you'll surface more feedback, but the quality will suffer. When feedback is attributed, people will provide feedback they're willing to stand behind. When feedback is anonymous, prepare yourself for playground name-calling.
Many organizations make the mistake of "shielding" employees from feedback by passing all feedback to the manager and letting the manger share it with the employee (or not). This appears to be the case at Amazon. In his rebuttal to the NYT, Amazon's head of Infrastructure Development Nick Ciubotariu said, "If the feedback does not have very specific data, as a manager, you are trained to dig deeper before accepting it (whether it’s positive or negative), and the tool allows you to do just that: reject the feedback by sending it back for clarification. Managers are also coached on diving deep into feedback to ensure that what Jodi and David state to happen---employee sabotage---actually does not."
Manager screening is a mistake. When feedback goes through the filter of a manager, it often gets muted or muffled like a childhood game of telephone. What the employee eventually hears---if anything at all---might not be recognizable.
Why do they have to add layers to this process? (Hint: Because anonymous feedback tends to be poisonous; see fix #1.) By making sure feedback is attributed, we've raised the quality of feedback and removed the need for manager screening. Your employees are big girls and boys. They deserve to hear feedback firsthand.
One of the biggest issues with traditional feedback mechanisms is that they're one-way communication channels: somebody provides feedback but there’s no way to engage further. What if the feedback is valuable but leaves one question open that would make it 10 times more valuable? What if the feedback is based on bad assumptions or misinformation?
Employees should have an opportunity to engage with the feedback. They should be able to ask for clarity. They should be able to correct faulty assumptions or bad information. This can be as simple as providing a comment thread that connects the employee to the feedback provider.
Amazon appears to be relying entirely on unsolicited feedback: people can give feedback whenever they want but employees aren't empowered to request feedback. This tends to lead to an imbalance of feedback on the negative side. Social scientists call this negativity bias; it's the reason we're more likely to fill out a comment card at McDonald's when we're upset about the service (as opposed to when we're satisfied).
The best real-time feedback mechanisms enable employees to give AND request feedback. When you complete a project or finalize a deliverable, what if you could ask for feedback from your peers? By letting employees own their feedback, we reduce the chances for foul-play or sabotage.
I applaud Amazon for having the initiative to listen to employees, and other companies have followed suit. But the current state isn't quite ideal yet. Solving for the four pitfalls above will put your feedback mechanism on great foundation for success.
I'm a big fan of our own feedback tool that includes the four fixes above. For some ideas on how to source real feedback from both managers and employees, download our free ebook of 360 Degree Feedback Questions.