Purposeful Darwinism: HOW AMAZON’S ANONYMOUS FEEDBACK SYSTEM ERUPTED NEGATIVITY AMIDST EMPLOYEES
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 11:43:59 AM

The New York Times (NYT) has recently published a report on online retailer, Amazon. According to the report, Amazon’s innovation culture is actually “Purposeful Darwinism” that impacts its employees negatively. If the report is to be believed, employees are expected to prioritize their work over their families and personal affairs. E-mails come past midnight, soon followed by various text messages enquiring why they are not answered. The in-house phone directory informs colleagues the process of sending secret feedback to their colleagues’ bosses. According to employees, it is mainly used for sabotaging others.

Bo Olson from the Book Marketing department stayed for less than two years and revealed that his most loathsome memory was of watching people weeping “in the office, a sight other workers described as well. You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” adding this. Employees consider Amazon’s feedback tool ‘a river of intrigue and scheming’. According to the report, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ one of the main principles is “Harmony is often overruled in workplace.” Also, employees are asked to rip into peers’ ideas with painful blunt feedback.

Amazon’s Anytime Feedback Tool enables its employees to post comments about fellow colleagues anonymously. These comments are later considered at the time of culling staff. None of the company’s 14 principles sheds light on collaboration. Instead, they focus on digging, appreciating individuals with groundbreaking ideas, and evaluating their ideas to make them more effective. Amazon’s system follows a thought process that isn’t very frequent in the industry and it rewards individualism. However, if mishandled, it cultivates debilitating and counterproductive individualism from top to bottom.

Brad Stone, the author of ‘The Everything Store’, responded to the report by revealing that Amazon’s culture encourages a certain type of mindset that is quite valuable in the tech world. However, this mindset loses its importance when employees are not treated properly. Poor collaboration promotes mistreatment amongst employees. Therefore, Stone wrote, “A new 15th principle should go something like: Have Empathy.”

Amazon tends to rely completely on unsolicited feedback. People can give feedback as per their desire and convenience but employees aren’t empowered to request for a feedback. This causes an imbalance of feedback on the negative side. Social scientists call this negativity bias; it’s the reason why we’re more likely to fill out that the comment card at McDonald’s when we haven’t been satisfied with the service.

The following are some of the prime reasons that have resulted in the failure of Amazon’s feedback system:

Less accountability

Anonymity helps cover brutal honesty. However, it comes with several drawbacks.

It causes employees to ridicule instead of critiquing their peers; it causes misunderstanding and puts constraints on in-depth follow-ups.

Politics

In Amazon’s feedback system, employees can send their feedback directly to their peers’ manager. This stirs up a real hornet’s nest of politics, disrupting the work culture.

style="text-align:justify"Although Amazon is making a mess out of the ‘Anytime Feedback System’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the system is redundant or debilitating. You can apply it resourcefully and morally by:

  • Ensuring that every feedback is attributed. When feedbacks aren’t attributed, they tend to be derogative in nature. According to a recent study, 53% of anonymous online feedbacks involved vulgar, racist, and hateful messages. Hence, attribution is important to avoid such obscenity.

  • Ensuring the feedback reaches the peer directly and not through any indirect medium.
  • Implementing the entire feedback mechanism of the company is a two-way process. This enables the employees to get more clarity and clear their doubts and misunderstandings.

If implemented appropriately, the real-time feedback mechanism helps employees provide and even request for feedback. It ultimately improves the quality of work, employees’ efficiency, and expertise. Also, by providing accountability to the feedback, the scope for sabotage and foul play are minimized. But, if done inappropriately, real-time feedback will do more harm than any good. Therefore, organizations should be heedful while implementing their real-time feedback mechanism.

 

Even if Bezos is right about harmony being overrated; collaboration isn’t half as much as it should be. And whatever reason is behind Amazon’s success, it’d be foolishness to implement a feedback structure that rewards workers for trampling on colleagues in the name of getting heard and getting ahead.