Here’s why tech companies should avoid the Amazon workplace culture problem

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Data-driven employee evaluations can turn humans into robots

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Data rules the world, right? Not when it comes to your employees.

I’m the product of a callous corporate culture, one that almost squeezed the life out of me in the '90s. I didn’t like how upper management used meritocracy as a way to crush employees into submission, or how data became the only measure of employee performance. I came to despise this approach.

Now, the same criticism has been levelled at Amazon, and the fallout is still TBD. Jeff Bezos has defended Amazon as a fun place to work. It’s not wrong to expect high performance from employees, and he says the company has zero tolerance for a lack of empathy, according to an internal memo.

There’s a danger with tech companies that see data as the measure of all things, including whether employees are performing up to standards. You can crunch the numbers about many things, but if your employee evaluations hinge entirely on rankings and foster a work environment that sees your staff as robotic drones who need to meet a set of empirical requirements only, then we have created something that is quite deadly.

Why is that? As Bezos mentioned in his internal memo, it can create a lack of empathy. We see the value of an IT staffer only in terms of the numbers. The real problem is that there is a set of data we can gather and then there is our interpretation of that data. I just wrote about a company called Looker that has decided to differentiate from other data analysis companies by focusing more on the insights from data rather than just producing reams of data.

I wish more employers had this focus. Insight is an interpretation based on wisdom and understanding. It puts the onus on the analyzer, not on the analysis. You have to be good at evaluating something, you don’t just have to sift through a data set and react. A culture that only uses data to evaluate employees is essentially removing leadership from the equation and turning employee performance into a sad exercise in analytics. It’s not. It is an exercise in interpretation and good leadership.

There are so many variables that come into play. I ran large teams in a corporate office for 10 years and I did use data-driven methods, But I also evaluated employees based on many other factors. Was this person still learning the ropes in a new field? Was there some life crisis happening at the time? Did the employee pick up the slack for others on the team in ways that did not appear on the performance charts? Did the employee show empathy to others in the workplace and encourage others to succeed? Those things are often not part of a performance ranking and they require good insight into the person as a whole. There’s a reason we don’t have a computer evaluate employees and spit out a number. That’s cold and callous. Also, it doesn’t really work. It leads to a culture of drone-like behavior. When the only goal for an employee is to hit a set of numbers, we leave out a world of performance differentiators.

Tech companies in particular need to overemphasize the human factor. It’s OK to have high expectations for employees, but we need to realize that there are living, breathing people we are evaluating — people who have families, who have stresses that come up, who need to have a boss who understands what is going on in their lives. It’s not compromise. It’s a way to seeing employee behavior as something that evolves and changes. We all have bad days. We’re not androids. Employees are either pushing a company forward or blocking its growth, but as managers it is important to evaluate performance holistically and not just with data.

In the end, good companies thrive through diversity. Not just through the data.

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