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Biggest Blunders to Learn From in 2016 Part 2: Amazon's Anytime Employee Feedback Tool

Employee feedback is powerful. It can come in many forms and be used in a multitude of situations to help people and companies grow. And according to our buddy Josh Bersin at Deloitte, it’s the killer app.

In this second post of our four-part Big Business Blunders Series, we look at Amazon’s Anytime Feedback Tool, which we provided four ways to fix last August.

 

This time we’ve reached out to industry experts, consultants, and HR pros from small start-ups to big enterprises for advice on what we can learn from these mistakes. Keep reading to see what they had to say.

 

Subscribe to the QW blog to get this series of Big Business Blunders sent straight to your inbox.


The Story: Amazon Employees Slam Each Other Through Internal Review Tool

 

Amazon BuildingIf you picked up the paper or opened your web browser in August, you probably came across The New York Times’ not-so-flattering exposé of Amazon’s company culture (recall descriptive phrases like, “bruising workplace” and “purposeful Darwinism”). One key component: its Anytime Feedback Tool, a “widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management.”
 
While good in theory, Amazon employees say the idea fosters a “river of intrigue and scheming,” as employees often used the tool to gang up on and bury one another. Employees were unable to argue the negative feedback made by unidentified colleagues, and in some cases, the “criticism was copied directly into performance reviews.” (And since employees are ranked according to Amazon’s review process with bottom-tier employees being eliminated at the end of each year, this was a VERY big deal.)


What We Can Learn/Advice:

Josh-Bersin“Our research shows that companies that value open feedback and communication outperform their peers. This does not mean, however, that an anonymous feedback tool should let employees do away with respect, honesty, confidentiality, and fairness. We urge companies that use these tools to set guidelines in place, and communicate that nobody should say anything online that they would not say in person.”

Josh Bersin

Deloitte

 

Dwane-Lay“It sounds horrible to many people, but for some it will be Nirvana. They've built a culture that clearly works for them. Easy to criticize, but helps them move out the people who aren't right for them. Every culture is the right one for somebody.”

 

 

Dwane Lay

Dovetail Software

 

paul hebert“Anonymous never plays well. You’d think Amazon would understand the downside of having a commenting system in place that doesn’t require accountability. Their own site has some interesting comment threads. Have you seen comments on YouTube or any controversial blog? Or better yet, just peruse a few political article comment feeds to see how bad anonymous commenting can get.
 
No one ever erred by underestimating human behavior. I’m sure that when Amazon did this some guru said it was the future of employee reviews—transparent and real time. This is why we shouldn’t blindly follow outliers and try to emulate who we ‘think’ is doing it right. Yes, even Amazon can make big mistakes. Transparency without accountability is a cesspool.”

Paul Hebert

Engagement/Recognition Consulting | Fistful of Talent

 

tim sackett “Anonymous feedback is the root of all evil! This is so easy to change that it's embarrassing to have to point it out to executives making millions of dollars per year. Don't allow this feedback to be anonymous. Let the receiver know exactly who is giving the feedback. This will stop about 90 percent of the destructive feedback and force your employees to think of constructive ways to deliver their message or not give it at all.
 
The solution to all of this is training and educating your leaders and employees on how to deliver appropriate feedback within the work environment. That will foster collaboration, meeting the organizational goals while helping people to get truly better in their jobs. Most anonymous feedback will never reach these goals!”

Tim Sackett

The Tim Sackett Project | Fistful of Talent

 

Email-Signature-Jason“This story was made out to be about a ‘feedback tool,’ but really it’s about Amazon’s culture and what behavior their leadership is reinforcing with employees. A tool is only as good as the strategy and support in place to make it work. Based on the story, it appears that at least in some teams, the management has been reinforcing a culture where anonymous, negative feedback is given a lot of weight in performance decisions. Because this type of behavior is given attention, you get more of it. In this approach, feedback is being used punitively.
 
Feedback should be used as a tool to improve performance and reinforce desired behaviors. Effective feedback is timely, constructive, and put in context. Anonymous feedback sent only to managers rarely meets any of these criteria. To get the full benefit of a feedback tool, it should be designed to facilitate peer-to-peer feedback, be non-anonymous, and allow for the person receiving the feedback to ask questions to gain understanding and context. When these conditions exist, it significantly increases the likelihood that the feedback has the desired impact—to drive improvements.”

Jason Lauritsen

Quantum Workplace

 

Chris-Ebbeler2“Creating a culture of feedback has to start with the core belief that we deserve both appreciative and constructive guidance in the workplace. Our innate sense of competition and turf protection is rooted deep, and it’s reinforced daily from the world around us. All you have to do is follow the number one trend on social media right now after the holidays—hoverboard fails. We seem to get so much glee out of seeing others fall. Why not create a culture where feedback is balanced—where we hear what to keep doing, along with something to improve upon? Everyone is doing SOMETHING you can appreciate.”

Chris Ebbeler

Brinker International

 

“The problem here is not the feedback tool. The problem is that the culture seems to have slipped without them really noticing it. Amazon is a company that is built on data—just look at those amazing algorithms that seemingly tell you what you want to buy. So having a feedback tool that brings more data into the conversation makes sense in that culture. But I don't think (and this is a guess) that they were as clearly intentioned when the culture slipped into one that was more cut-throat and lopped off the bottom performers casually. The lesson for me is that your culture will shift, morph, and evolve—whether you want it to or not—and you need to stay on top of that.”

Maddie Grant

CultureThatWorks

 

“This story should make you sad, especially if you are a proponent of transparency. It seems as if Amazon’s employees used the “Anytime Feedback Tool” in the worst possible manner.
 
Many business leaders will see this as a justification for not employing feedback tools that offer a wonderful way to build engagement. This story only justifies the paranoia many already feel about an open forum for employees to vocalize. Don’t bury the lead, though—the real story is the reflection on Amazon’s culture. When you create a culture of fear, don’t hand the inmates a shiv.”

John Whitaker

HR Hardball


What do you think of Amazon’s Anytime Feedback Tool? Do you agree or disagree with the comments above? Share your thoughts and advice in the comments below!

 

This is the second post of the 2016 Big Business Blunders Series. For more blunders, subscribe to our blog to get the rest of the series sent straight to your inbox.

 

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