Engagement Sapped by Common Mistakes: The Case of Uber and Amazon

By Eduardo Sasso

“Nearly all surveyed companies report that ‘agility and collaboration’ are critical to their organization’s success.”
—Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2017

The world of employee engagement has been experiencing new sounds and rhythms, where reciprocity and co-creativity are becoming the tunes of the day. In a digital workplace increasingly characterized by transparency, employees expect much more than a pay check and an annual satisfaction survey.

Uber and Amazon are two recent examples of organizations ignoring that. That said, other companies are embracing more collaborative ways of engaging their staff and making decisions.

Engagement…and All That Jazz
There’s a well-known metaphor used to describe two leadership styles: leading with a stick or with a carrot. In certain circumstances both have their place.

But what if we started seeing employees as jazz musicians? And what if employee engagement was more about weaving people’s melodies into the baseline tune of the organization’s vision?

Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company – two key dimensions of thriving organizations. This may come as no surprise. For one, the Great Place to Work Institute notes how organizations that are proactive about employee engagement outperformed the S&P 500 over four-fold from 1990–2009.

Still, engagement remains at all-time lows. Only around 13 per cent of employees feel engaged, as evidenced in Gallup’s well-known workplace engagement study of 230,000 full-time and part-time employees in 142 countries. With those figures, the staff of two of today’s tech giants might not be the exception.

Overcoming What Two Tech Giants Did Wrong
The carrot and the stick are still common in many companies. While such methods may work for a time (and they often do), the long term consequence can spiral down into damaging outcomes. Uber and Amazon are good examples.

Mistake #1: Short-term achievers do not equal long-term loyalists. In the third quarter of 2016, the ride-sharing giant, Uber, lost $800 million. There have been many causes identified for the slump, ranging from misogyny, to accusations of stealing copyright, to losing 200,000 customers because of ties to the new presidency in the US, to poor PR practices in light of taxi-driver boycotts.

Regardless, a common denominator behind Uber’s risky maneuvers has been the company’s aggressive working culture. Following a recent employee scandal that went viral, Uber’s HR department has become infamous as an internal battlefield of endless games of thrones. The  fascination with explosive growth at their employees’ expense has been damaging the company’s brand reputation. Moreover, it’s likely to put the recruitment and retention of talented staff (and drivers) on the uphill, as predicted anonymously by a former Uber exec.

Mistake #2: Customer satisfaction first, employee engagement third. Described as a bruising workplace, meritocracy and frequent combat are writ large in Amazon’s 14 leadership principles. One of these is “disagree and commit.” Top leadership is weary of harmony, as it can stifle honest critique and lead to a polite praise of flawed ideas. HR VP Tony Gebalto says Amazonians are encouraged to rip apart each other’s proposals through debate, as opposed to finding a compromise. This leads to blunt (and often painful) feedback—which only some can take.

This is one among many tactics that make up the company’s ‘purposeful Darwinism’—wherein a mass intake of new employees help spin the Amazon wheel and then wear out, leaving only the most committed Amazonians to survive.

To be sure, some employees receive outstanding compensation—but one matched by 80-hour work weeks, a preference for males in their 30s or 20s, and by a median employee tenure of one year, among the briefest at Fortune 500. Former executive Joss Rossman, author of The Amazon Way, says Amazon is “the greatest place I’d hate to work.”

How can mistakes like these begin to be overcome, or at least minimized?

Three Ways to Enhance Employee Engagement
Deloitte’s HR virtuoso, Josh Bersin, has identified five dimensions of an irresistible organization: meaningful work, great management, growth opportunities, inclusive and fun environment, and trusted leadership. In fact, Bersin’s great ideas inspired my client, Ethelo, to create a digital employee engagement forum for staff to co-design their workplace culture and conditions. The forum is grounded in at least 3 ways in which networked modes of decision-making can help overcome the mistakes of the aforementioned tech giants.

1. Consult & perform (not command & control). International business consultant Wayne Visser recognizes that with the arrival of the Web 2.0, broadcast is ‘out’ but dialogue is ‘in’.  In fact, some companies now have a chief listening officer. For one thing, guaranteeing the loyalty of uncommitted Millennials will become more important as they continue be more numerous in the workforce.

Companies serious about employee engagement should make sure to go beyond the annual employee survey towards fostering real-time participatory environments that monitor what’s important. According to Bersin, with the influx of younger workers and “the proliferation of technology at work, the whole environment has to be more flexible and transparent.” This might take the form of constructive ‘pulse surveys’ or dynamic collaboration forums that are mobile ready.

2. Allow for consensual, crowd-validated feedback. To be sure, anonymous forums such as Amazon’s ‘Anytime Feedback’ can lend themselves to scheming or open sabotage from unidentified colleagues. To minimize this threat, clear guidelines and necessary monitoring procedures need to be in place; like moderating suspicious or hurtful comments through crowd-validation.

Such was the case in a staff action planning at one of the departments of the Government of Canada. Because transparency was of the essence to create trust and buy-in among staff, management put forward an open digital forum for employee engagement, in order to set joint priorities in departmental culture. Out of 800+ staff comments, 60 per cent were positive; 24 per cent negative. Even though participation was anonymous, there were no registered requests for moderators to intervene. The forum had its own set of crowd-sourced checks and balances.

3. Use collaboration tools appropriate for the employee experience. Companies that deploy design thinking will more likely operate according to the real needs of their staff. The premise is to study what employees do, visit their workplaces, and observe their behavior as a way to collect ideas as to what matters to them.

Digital tools are redefining old hierarchies, and creating interconnected networks of smaller teams. For one, the hierarchical approach of companies like Amazon and Uber, where ideas are ignored or criticised harshly, can lead workers to be afraid of speaking up (or to blow the whistle too loudly!).

On the bright side, participatory tools for digital engagement are now enabling teams to be better attentive to everyone’s input. Products such as Facebook’s Workplace, Slack, Zoom, Google G-suite, and solutions from companies such as Basecamp, Trello, and Asana, can support collaborative team-centric work.

After an employee design-sprint, IBM reinvented its performance management process by building Checkpoint, a new feedback platform designed by employees for employees. It’s increasing engagement, alignment, and goal management of more than 400.000 staff. On the growth-stage side, social-media tool company, Buffer, has created a fairly flat distributed team of 75 working across 6 times zones. Grounded in values such as ‘showing gratitude’, ‘listening’ and ‘transparency’, they work in “asynchronous collaboration”, which is allowing them to keep track of their 4+ million users.

The carrot and the stick may be with us for a while longer, but employees are being drawn to an entirely new set of rules. In fact, they’re not so much ‘rules’ as they are ‘tunes.’ And that’s why instead of leading by ‘direction’, more decision-makers are recognizing the value of leading by ‘orchestration,’ knowing they’ll increase buy-in and engagement from team members as they do so.

Eduardo Sasso, a business consultant, is a process engineer who unfolds the power of relationships to enable organizations to embed sustainable practices.

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