Viewpoint: Are Amazon's feedback tactics unusual?

man looks sad as lots of fingers are pointed at him Image copyright Thinkstock

Allegations about Amazon's workplace culture have generated a furore this week. But many of the things Amazon has been accused of have been tried before, writes Peter Fleming.

One of the more interesting excursions that reality TV has made into the workplace is the series Undercover Boss. A chief executive dons a disguise and enters the lowest ranks of the large corporation they run. Instead of meeting a happy workforce, they instead find misery, managerial meanness and bizarre levels of micro-regulation.

The New York Times's recent exposé of life for Amazon's white-collar workforce has done something similar, but without the participation of chief executive Jeff Bezos in disguise. Much of the attention was on the highly individualised "rank and yank" performance review where employees are regularly reviewed, stack ranked, and the worst performers fired.

The newspaper described a data-led performance management system that documented almost every action - including how long it took to reply to an email. There was also the Anytime Feedback Tool, where workers could leave anonymous comments about each other's performance to the boss. A former employee complained it could be used to sabotage co-workers and exact revenge. It "promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event", the report said.

Jeff Bezos responded angrily to the New York Times allegations. In a memo to staff, he accused the paper of grossly misrepresenting the firm: "The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day."

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Image caption Anonymous appraisal by co-workers can inspire paranoia

Much of the media reportage got the wrong end of the stick about Amazon's micro-management philosophy in representing it as some aberrant and highly unusual case.

It has been noted that major companies including General Electric, Microsoft and Accenture Consulting have all abandoned the "rank and yank" type of performance review because of the disorder and mistrust it creates.

So is the Amazon management philosophy really an unusual outlier in the corporate world? It's worth looking at the reader responses to the story.

Apart from the predictable outrage ("After reading this article, I want to vomit") and notes of approval ("America needs more companies like Amazon") the comments section teems with "my firm does that too" nuggets of insight.

For example: "I am an engineer at the biggest semiconductor company in the world. I have worked here for 17 years. I can only say the work environment described in this article is very similar to where I am working."

The vision of Amazon's office culture set up in the New York Times article really is no deviation from the classic precepts of managerial capitalism.

If the New York Times allegations were true, Amazon has simply taken a fairly traditional managerial creed - numerically record every human employee action in the workplace so that it can be completely controlled - and enlisted "big data" to invent a surveillance machine.

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Image caption Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) - father of the "rank and yank" school of management

According to the control-obsessed Frederick Winslow Taylor - a management consultant who observed steel factory workers in the early 20th Century - the first principle of management was very simple.

He wanted to scientifically measure every part of the job so that he understood it far better than the employee actually doing it. For this he used a stopwatch. Then he ranked each worker's output individually and rewarded them accordingly.

Taylor was driven by a deep worry. If employees hid their behaviour from managers, especially in group settings, they would end up controlling the production process rather than supervisors. The legacy of this paranoia is still prevalent in today's modern offices.

But the reason workers despised this so-called "scientific management" style was not because they wanted to stage a revolution or take over the means of production.

No, it's just very difficult to do the job well under such conditions. We become more concerned about what the metrics say, compulsively comparing ourselves to others, usually in a state of anxiety. And let's not even mention cooperation. Getting the job done well becomes a secondary issue.

It might be argued that using hyper-individualised big data to control workplace behaviour truly enters another arena with Amazon's Anytime Feedback Tool. But similar systems have been common in offices for some time, most notably the "360 degree" appraisal method where employees are evaluated by their supervisor and anonymously by their co-workers and subordinates. It's been around since World War Two.

The trouble is that anonymous assessments hardly ever promote objectivity. Especially when the comments capture spur of the moment gripes.

It's similar to the "disinhibitor effect" among internet users. All kinds of devious and ugly thoughts end up being expressed, many of which may not actually be genuinely endorsed when the evaluator is confronted face-to-face.

This is why seasoned business advisers are so wary of anonymous peer appraisals. The opportunity for what might be called "office trolling" is ample.

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Almost every business guru now pontificates on the virtues of "completing the feedback circle" as swiftly as possible. This is the circuit between performance (what we do) evaluation (by a customer, boss, peers) and feedback (the packaged information returned to the individual so that their behaviour can be corrected).

The faster the feedback, the better. Electronically derived data makes it possible, perhaps for the first time, to close this circle instantaneously. A process of constant performance review.

But do abstract numbers really give us a complete picture about how well an individual is performing in say, a meeting? Or a team's effectiveness given it can consist of different individuals with diverse roles? Many would say not.

What once used to be conducted with stopwatches has now been taken to the nth degree with computers. Perhaps this is why so many managers today - in the public and private sectors - suffer from a crippling "spreadsheet mentality". Screeds of numbers are mistakenly treated like some sacred truth about what makes employees tick.

Frederick Taylor would have loved "big data" and the Anytime Feedback Tool. In his time, however, Taylor's ideas sparked widespread riots. Will the data-led management fad exemplified by Amazon do the same?

Peter Fleming writes about work in the Magazine

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