AlignmentA number of large companies are confronting (willingly and unwillingly) the issues around their own performance management and making some hard choices to try to improve performance by changing workplace culture. They are faced with tradeoffs between what they aspire to be as an organization and what has evolved from the intended and unintended pressures they put on their employees.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ response to recent New York Times articles about work-life in the company, exposes a lack of alignment between the kind of organization that Bezos espouses and the organization that actually exists for many workers.

Brad Federman summarizes the charges against the Amazon culture in this way:

Shocking workloads, memorizing leadership principles, laminated cards describing the culture, quizzes on the culture and rewards for perfect scores, pushed to play devil’s advocate, late nights, sabotaging others careers, mechanisms to secretively provide feedback on other employees, significant turnover valued, high risk/high reward, attractive stock options, lack of concern for people with health issues or personal crisis, practiced use of counselling out, purposeful Darwinism, a.k.a Amazon.

Bezos, on the other hand, wrote in an email to his employees this week that he expects them to show empathy for the problems of their coworkers and “…hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”  Apparently, Bezos thinks that Amazon is a happy, collaborative culture. This isn’t what many employees are reporting.

Zappos CEO Tony Hseih is adapting Holacracy to his organization in order to increase employee involvement and commitment. Theoretically, this structure is leaderless and depends on self-management. Zappos (owned by Amazon) also faces a cultural alignment challenge. I wrote about this in a previous post:

I do wonder about an apparent disconnect between the intention to create a company in which there are no managers and self-management and self-organization are highly valued, yet the decision to become that kind of company was decided by the CEO and is being enforced as if the company is still hierarchical and command and control. Zappo’s might aspire to be leaderless, but that will be very hard to achieve for a company in which the charismatic founder and inspirational leader is still around and the parent company is a much more traditional organization.  

Cultural change is a struggle, especially when espoused values do not align with values in use. Leaders can aspire to a humane, egalitarian workplace but if the incentives are elsewhere, employees will behave in response to the incentives. If managers are rewarded (pay, promotion, recognition, etc.) for the amount of work they do and the amount of time they spend at work, they will do all the things they need to do to look busy and productive. And they will expect the same of their direct reports. If managers are rewarded for treating their employees humanely and for involving them in decision-making, that’s what employees will do for each other. There must be alignment.

Some companies are working hard at alignment. Accenture is eliminating annual performance reviews and ranking of employees. Instead, managers are expected to provide ongoing feedback to their direct reports. CEO Pierre Nanterme became convinced that annual performance reviews and rankings were not improving performance. He believes that what improves performance is just-in-time feedback around everyday work activities. He wants employees to learn and grow and is trying to align the performance management system with those values.

Business leaders need to pay more attention to workplace culture. These days, the competition is fierce and the expectations of customers are high.  Espoused values need to be aligned with values in use if they are going to have a chance to achieve the level of productivity, creativity, and innovation needed to compete and succeed over the long term.