What Amazon Teaches Us about Staying in Touch with Your Front Line

Photo of box from Amazon

Photo courtesy of Aurelijus Valeiša on Flickr.com

No matter where you turn, you’re hearing scathing reports about employee culture at Amazon. Brutal work hours, unreasonably high productivity standards, intimidation of workers, employees encouraged to spy on one another, unremitting tension between employees and supervisors. The list goes on and on and it’s not pretty.

But what’s particularly hard to understand is the shocked reaction of Amazon’s executive cadre when they read the article written about their employee culture in The New York Times. How could they have been unaware of those very significant and troublesome problems?

Jeff Bezos’s response runs contradictory to what’s been reported. In an email sent to Amazon employees he says:

“The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” Bezos writes. “But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero. . . . But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”

Now, nobody knows exactly how much of the problems reported are true. But there are so many of them you can’t help but reach the conclusions that (1) cultural problems do exist, and (2) top management at Amazon is out of touch with the front line, where the work gets done.

How Top Management Can Stay In Touch With The Front Line

Since the 2008 downturn in the economy, people feel vulnerable and overwhelmed. They are also worried about cutbacks and layoffs. As a leader it’s your responsibility to communicate everything to them by letting them know what is happening in your company, team or department. Open the lines of communication and let people know that you care about their job performance and about their personal lives. Effective leaders place a high value on human capital.Take these explicit steps:

  1. Remember that management technique Management By Walking Around? It was popular for a few years, then faded. But it’s still as powerful a communications tool as it’s ever been. Simply take time periodically to walk around your production floor or office—wherever your firing line is—and stop and talk with employees. Ask them how things are going. Believe me, that will open the floodgates. You’ll hear about problems you weren’t aware of, many of them serious enough to warrant your involvement.
  2. You can also use the same technique to observe work practices. For example, poor housekeeping may be an indication that other, deeper problems exist. Employees lounging around may indicate a lack of a sense of urgency on the front line. Look for similar signs of unexposed problems. And when you find them, dig deeper to unearth root causes and remedies, and get your organization back on track.
  3. You must accept that part of the problem starts with top management. If communication from the bottom of the organization is lacking, so too is communication from the top. You can never take it for granted; you need to think of it as a product. This requires that you take an occasional communication inventory: looking at all current channels, vehicles, systems, and networks to find out who communicates to whom. Then, analyse the communication system and make it as effective as you would any other system in the organization. An effective communication system keeps everybody keyed in to organization essentials.
  4. Don’t ignore front line supervisors. Establish communication forums that allow these important employees to express their concerns, their problems and their frustrations. If this critical segment of the organization has poor morale, so will front line employees they supervise.

If nothing else, I think the Amazon case has made leaders everywhere aware of the need to know what’s happening in their organizations, and hopefully they’ll consider it a call to action.

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