Amazon has some great leadership principles. These principles are focused around delivering results for the company. Moving fast, being right, and insisting on high standards. The wording of the principles focuses on achieving business success. Even "earn trust" which purports to be related to teamwork says "They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best". These principles want you to create great value for the company.
This focus on business results makes sense. A for profit company is created to conduct business for the purpose of making money, not to help people.
Every large company has hundreds of pages of documentation on how to fire employees. How many pages of official policy demand employees be given respect, flexibility, patience, and trust?
Until recently, Amazon's Leadership Principles were missing elements which spoke to more than being efficient and profitable. On July 1st 2021, Amazon announced it had created two new Leadership Principles. Strive to be Earth's Best Employer explains that employees should lead with empathy, and Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility explains that leaders have a greater calling than just business excellence.
This article deals with the Best Employer new Leadership Principle - the need to lead with empathy. I have also outlined some specifics in the past regarding how to lead with empathy.
Everyone has a personal life
I once noticed that an engineer who reported to me was not finishing her tasks as quickly as she usually did. She acted normally in the office, but was falling further behind on projects. Occasionally I'd be unable to find the engineer in the middle of the day as well, as she would disappear from the office for hours at a time. Her co-workers had started complaining that she wasn't pulling her weight.
I needed to see what was going on, so I called her into my office for a quick discussion.
Me: "Hey Nellie, I've observed that your tasks are dragging a bit recently. I looked for you twice earlier today and was unable to find you. Is everything ok?"
After an unconvincing suggestion from her that everything was fine, I encouraged her to speak her mind.
Nellie: "I'm in the middle of getting a divorce, and I have court dates during the day sometimes. It's been a stressful few weeks. Figuring out kids, and daycare, and splitting our finances. It's hard to balance things."
People often don't want to bring their private challenges into work. They may not want to cry at the conference table about a sick loved one, or rant about their marital problems to their boss. Regardless, things come up in people's lives which can impact their performance.
There are employees who are not suited for their positions. They are missing a fundamental skill or leadership ability which will prevent them from ever being successful. Giving honest and frequent feedback to employees who are not performing is a good thing. No one can last forever in this situation, and an empathic manager doesn't shy away from these critical conversations.
Amazon has a strict performance process, which demands that leaders aggressively manage underperformance out of the company. In general, I don't disagree with the policy. It can be demoralizing to work in a place where incompetence is normal and accepted.
However, too many leaders take a black and white approach to performance management. They are asked "who is doing the worst here?", and leaders blindly point at an employee, regardless of the circumstances involved. Performance management at companies exists to build long term human value at the company. It is not intended to focus on only the last few months.
Looking at my example of Nellie above, does that sound like an employee who can never contribute to her company? Someone who should go find a new job? Absolutely not. She was valuable before her personal life intruded, and once her personal situation was resolved, she was a valuable employee again. Perhaps more so, because her team rallied around her and provided support when she had so many other issues to deal with. People feel connected to teams and co-workers who demonstrate that they care.
Take a risk for people
We often take risks at work to achieve great things for the company and our careers. We might propose that a project can be completed in 2 months, when it is possible it will take 3 months. We might agree to organize a large presentation for our leadership team, when we're not 100% sure we can do it well. We take risks in the hope that we achieve personal and career excellence.
Too often we don't take risks for the people who work with us, and for us. We claim that policy has our hands tied, or that someone's personal issues are "no excuse" for underperformance. We like to claim that we're taking a risk on someone when we hire them, but that's lip service. There is no real personal risk involved.
I briefly hinted at a story in a podcast I did recently about how I have leaned in on employees trying new career paths. I have told employees in the past that they could try a new role, such as moving into management from an engineer. I said that we could take a risk on them. I also promised that they could move back to their previous role without a negative mark on their performance record.
This allowed my employee to take a risk on learning something new, and trying something which they may not be good at. I took a risk as a leader, particularly at a place like Amazon, because I was sticking my neck out when I put the performance management process to the side for a period of time. There is no official policy allowing a manager to give someone a pass on poor performance.
As leaders and/or managers, we will often find that empathy is not on the easy road. You can find yourself spending political capital to help an employee who is not doing their job well. It's a different type of risk taking, and not one for your own personal gain.