Big Brother Is Measuring You!

“When we recognize and measure the effect of our actions, we gain knowledge about what we must change so that we can make a different impact.” That’s a quote from Measure of a Leader, a book I co-authored with my brother James E. Daniels. Measurement remains a key component for any performance improvement, because if we don’t measure performance, how can we know with confidence that we have improved it? During the past three decades, I’ve worked with clients to see that performance must be broken into measurable actions — specific behaviors that are known to produce the best results.

Because of what I know about measurement, I was astounded by a recent article, “The Brave New World of Work: Where Employees Are Treated as Criminals,” by Anthony Elliott, director of Hawke Research Institute at University of South Australia. Elliott describes an Orwellian workplace using Big Brother tactics to monitor every employee’s minute-by-minute activities. Employees are contractually obliged to carry electronic gadgets to track their individual job performance, the length of their breaks, and when and if they have too many conversations with their peers.

What Dickensian organization would come up with such measures? The answer is — surprisingly — Amazon, the global online retailer! Workers in Amazon’s flagship factory in Staffordshire, England, not only carry handheld devices that measure their performance in real time, but the company management team also uses the devices to deliver remote admonishments.

Elliott writes: “Workers carrying such devices were bestowed with percentages for their speed in completing designated tasks. Fast work scored high marks. The flipside, however, was the latent message that one might get axed for crimes like failing to keep up.”

Apparently, Amazon has undergone quite a bit of criticism for such methods. You may ask, “So what’s the problem? After all, you endorse performance measurement; you promote performance feedback!” If I said it once, I’ve said it a million times. Measurement isn’t the culprit. It’s how measurement is used to affect performance that is! Athletes (from linebackers to tennis pros) use measurement. They score themselves voluntarily because improved numbers bring positive reinforcement on any playing field.

I’d be willing to bet (backed by scientific fact, of course) that Amazon’s electronic measures could completely change the face of this factory in a positive way, and here’s how: Use the data collected to know when to do the following:

  • Provide constructive but positive performance feedback.
  • Recognize, reward and reinforce improved performance.
  • Organize group celebrations for overall performance improvement (which also encourages teamwork and peer-to-peer feedback).
  • Set new goals.
  • Remove obstacles to performance.
  • Improve the environment.

This is measurement used correctly: helping people improve and reinforcing them for doing something right or better. When people learn that measurement is a basis for positive rather than negative consequences, they might actually ask for electronic monitoring so they too can join the fun. Obtaining the devices might even become a privilege that must be earned, like membership to an elite club!

Sound crazy? Well, Amazon isn’t earning many points with the current approach. It can either take the performance that it scares out of its employees (which will be minimal) or inspire discretionary effort (which is optimal). Amazon’s may be an obviously blatant error, but the error of using measurement for punishment instead of reward is all too common in organizations around the world. Amazon isn’t wrong for measuring performance, it’s wrong for sullying the positive uses of data by misusing measurement and, once again, giving a great management tool a bad name.