10 Sep. 2015 | Comments (0)
Should he desire, Jeff Bezos has a simple, powerful and culturally-compatible way to combat accusations that Amazon is a soulless, dystopian workplace: double down on being data-driven. Preempt bad employee vignettes with better empathic analytics.
Amazon should explicitly measure for the care, compassion, and kindness that Bezos justly celebrated in his 2010 Princeton commencement address. Monitor workplace “affect” as thoughtfully and rigorously as business “effect.” No, Bezos shouldn’t embed a C@D—Crying@Desk—metric on his KPI dashboard. But Amazon’s CEO might understandably want greater (statistical) confidence that his high-performance culture quantitatively reflects and respects the quality of mercy.
If Amazon’s culture of metrics truly cares about caring, in other words, it will measure it. Data will eradicate ignorance and ambiguity. Bezos’ best brains—and hearts—need to analytically define what they want empathy and compassion to look and feel like at their company. That may sound bloodless. But when your founder has declared data the lifeblood of his firm, it’s truly not.
There’s nothing glib or “tongue-in-cheeky” in this. To the contrary, data-driven compassion is completely consistent with the culture of metrics Bezos has sought to create since he launched Amazon.
As the New York Times article observed, “Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. ‘The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,’ said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer.”
Why shouldn’t or wouldn’t core values such as empathy and compassion be actively monitored, measured, and analyzed? Explicitly excluding kindness from managerial dashboards may send the wrong kind of message about the right kind of behaviors. “Continual performance improvement algorithms” that minimize or ignore behaviors the founder publicly cherishes are recipes for pathology and dysfunction.
If Bezos—who literally enjoys access to every bit of data that matters at Amazon—truly suspects or fears his metrics-obsessions have subverted the human values he highlighted at Princeton, you can bet that empathy and compassion metrics will soon be baked into Amazon’s next set of people analytics. A Culture of Metrics 2.0 becomes essential.
The most important insight here affirms that the roads to organizational hell are paved—not just digitally driven—with good intentions. That’s ultimately self-destructive. Innovators defined and led by data-driven decision-makers inspire schizoid enterprise cultures that bring out the best in people who want to build on data, and the worst in those looking simply to follow it—“I was just following the data/orders/metrics/KPIs,” etc.
Why? Because—more often than not—data inspire affective, not just effective, response. The key cultural quote from the Times story makes the point. “Data creates a lot of clarity around decision-making,” said Sean Boyle, who runs the finance division of Amazon Web Services and was permitted by the company to speak. “Data is incredibly liberating.”
That raises an obvious question: Liberating for whom?
When cultures authentically commit to being data-driven, data can literally dictate what you and your colleagues should do next. For many people, that’s not liberation; it’s servitude. Data end up removing choices instead of creating them. The “clarity” data supposedly bring eliminate excuses and rationalizations for avoidance and delay.
As the Times fairly noted, “Explanations like ‘we’re not totally sure’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ are not acceptable, many employees said. Some managers sometimes dismissed such responses as ‘stupid’ or told workers to ‘just stop it.’”
When a founder/CEO cherishes data, analytics, and metrics as corporate cultural totems, then that becomes part of the enterprise DNA. You don’t address it by memos and charismatically appealing to people’s good intentions and better selves, you deal with it by—yes!—asking for and insisting upon better data and metrics.
At Amazon’s cultural core, however, data and meaningful analytics are fuel and enzyme for innovation and inspiration. Outliers aren’t artifacts or aberrations; they’re gateways to new markets, novel technologies, or transformative insights that will knock Bezos’s socks off. Yes, you must respect and hit your “core metrics” but data truly liberates the enterprising intrapreneur. You betrayAmazon’s principles and your commitment to the company if you don’t embrace data as your path and partner to the truth.
That’s not a challenge to the mediocre to up their game; it’s a declaration that great talent and great effort and great vision with great data isn’t good enough for Amazon. If you’ve got a problem with that, Bezos has a problem with you.
But if great data and great analytics make it too easy for Amazon leaders and managers to swap apathy for empathy, then maybe they’re not so great. That’s exactly the kind of challenge a Jeff Bezos cares about.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 08/24/2015.
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