I should start by saying I'm a fan of Jeff Bezos and the incredible machine that is Amazon. I've admired advice Bezos has given on how to handle criticism and the questions he asks to ensure business success. I love how bold and innovative Amazon is almost as a default way of doing business.
But I've got to call it as I see it on one thing that cascades down from el jefe himself. At a recent forum on leadership, Bezos described how he will often forward a complaint email from a customer to the appropriate department manager, adding only one keystroke, one character--a question mark. It's his way of saying, as Bezos puts it, "Can you look into this, why is this happening, what's going on?".
What's Good About This Practice
First, let's start with the positive. Bezos has been vocal in sharing one of Amazon's core values, that it's customer-obsessed vs. competitor-obsessed. It's an important distinction because as Bezos points out the customer is quite often not happy. This forces you to stay sharp to keep up with what the customer wants because in reality, you're always behind.
Focusing on a competitor could soon place you well ahead of the competitor, making it easier to fall victim to complacency--something a customer would never allow you to do.
Sound thinking, and when Bezos sends out his "?" inquiries, he's role modeling from the very top down that customer obsession matters. That's a good thing.
What's Wrong With This Practice
But where this goes wrong is what happens after Bezos sends the single keystroke emails to a targeted manager. As Business Insider reported from an interview with an Amazon executive, all hell breaks loose, and Bezos knows it. The receiving manager opens the email with a sinking heart, and then kiss that weekend or the nights to follow goodbye because they're expected to drop everything and work fervently to craft a thoroughly considered response.
To me, this is a wholly unnecessary side effect. When a manager drops everything they're doing and spends an entire weekend to answer a "?" inquiry from Bezos, there's an opportunity cost to that.
Setting aside the work-life balance upheaval, the manager could have been working on something much more important leading to a richer form of customer delight. And there's no guarantee that the thing that Bezos singled out was a worthy enough issue, it's just something that happened to catch his attention. But because it's Bezos making the inquiry, it sends people scrambling.
As a leader, you must be aware that your words create work.
And it's bereft of emotional intelligence as the behavior runs roughshod over how a recipient must feel when they receive such a dreaded email. It's tone-deaf to the impact it has on the receiving organization and it sends undertones of mistrust and finger-pointing.
I've personally seen this kind of thing play out several times in the corporate world. I've watched emails from the C-suite trickle down on some pet-peeve issue and witnessed, first hand, entire groups drop everything they were doing to address the inquiry.
It creates fear, exhaustion, and frustration because often the inquiry was on an item that was truly a non-issue, something the sender would have known if they were closer to the business.
There's a better way forward then firing missiles from on-high.
It's as simple as Bezos taking a little extra time for some added language around the "?". Perhaps something like this, "Hey, I read this email from customer X and it seems to highlight a potential issue in your department. I'd appreciate it if you could look into this. Please know I'm role modeling our customer obsession value and I want you to keep my inquiry in perspective. Keep a sense of urgency but don't drop everything. I don't want my "?" to disrupt the other critical work you're doing".
I get that Bezos and all C-suite execs are crazy busy, so create a simple template like the one above and paste it in every time you have a "?" inquiry. An example like this defuses fear, tamps down overreaction, shows you're in touch with the chaos your inquiry could unnecessarily create--but still makes the point.
So leaders, stay inquisitive. Just don't turn it into an inquisition.