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Learning from Amazon: The Reality of Perceptions

By now, you’ve likely seen Saturday’s New York Times article Inside Amazon: Wrestling Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. You also may have seen Amazon’s response, including CEO Jeff Bezos’ email to employees and the independent LinkedIn article he cites by current employee Nick Ciubotariu. At the very least, you’ve likely seen the conversations online or in the news, with people weighing in either pro or con.

Regardless of where you fall in your perception of the truth, the reality is that now this is a story that is out there about Amazon. Many leaders and organizations face the same situation every day: working amidst perceptions that may or may not be rooted in reality. However, if they fail to address the perceptions, they leave a void in the story. Faced with a lack of information, people will fill in the blanks with their own—often negative—views.

Some people say that perception is reality. I say that, while perception may or may not be reality, it still drives behavior. So leaders must address perceptions—especially negative ones—head on. Here are a few ways leaders can intentionally shape the stories about themselves and their organizations:

  • Be direct – Let others know that you’re aware of the perceptions, and what you’re doing to address them. If you fail to talk about them, you give the perceptions more power. When you name a perception, it loses its power to control the narrative.
  • Get aligned - Whereas once, it may have been easier for companies to behave one way behind closed doors and a different way to the outside world, with social media, instant online publishing, and technology at people’s fingertips, a company’s brand must be in sync across everything from marketing and public relations, to manufacturing, environmental policies, and how the company relates to its employees. Start with your values. Define what it is you want your company to stand for, and then make sure everything you do links back to those values. And when things go wrong—because at one point or another they will—let your values be your guide.
  • Model behavior – Jeff Bezos has taken an important first step in reaching out to employees, letting them know that Amazon’s “tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” and providing a way for them to escalate issues. Moving forward, all eyes—especially those of his employees—will be on him. While it is always beneficial to be intentional about your behavior, at times of heightened awareness the stakes are even higher, because people pay attention more to what you do than to what you say. People will be watching his day-to-day actions—what behavior he reinforces in others, how he chooses to respond to issues raised, and the messages he sends formally, informally, and through the leaders who report to him.

From outside Amazon, it’s impossible to tell what it’s really like to work there. Even from inside Amazon, with the company being so large, it may be difficult to say whether one employee’s experience is representative of the whole, or whether each site and department is living up to the company’s stated values. I concur with Mr. Bezos that “anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay.” He’s taken some good first steps in addressing the perceptions. As a customer and stockholder, I hope he understands that culture is shaped first by the leaders in an organization and that he examines what he and his leadership team might intentionally or unintentionally be creating.  Looking forward, Bezos—like anyone leading an organization—must ask himself “What do I want the story about our organization to be?” and then align his messages and his actions toward living out that story.

Mindy Hall, PhDMindy Hall, PhD is the President & CEO of Peak Development Consulting, LLC, and author of the book Leading with Intention: Every Moment Is a Choice. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Leader to Leader, Leadership Excellence, Change This, Life Science Leader, Chief Executive, Talent Management, and more. She works with leaders around the globe to create sustainable organization and leadership development solutions: helping them address today’s challenges, while also growing their capacity to lead future initiatives from within. Her philosophy can be summed up in eight simple words: “I want it to matter that we met.”

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015  Tags: ,
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