The accepted wisdom when asking for employee feedback is to make it anonymous because anonymity means people will be more open. It seems logical at face value. If no one knows who said what, everyone can say what they think without fearing the consequences.
In JobVibe, we use both anonymous and named feedback. By default, when users give feedback each week it’s anonymous. But they can also choose to share detailed comments or suggest ideas in their name. As we’ve been developing the product, anonymity is an issue that’s come up a lot in discussion, and it’s one which has raised some big debates in the team.
It’s no surprise because in reality the concept of anonymous feedback is far more complex than we make out.
What impact does anonymity really have when you’re collecting feedback? And how should we approach anonymity in the context of designing organizations and workplaces for the future?
Anonymity can send the wrong message
Asking for anonymous feedback is often done to help people feel safe. But doing this can, in fact, send the opposite message. A piece in this month’s HBR titled Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely? argues,
“Allowing employees to remain unidentified actually underscores the risks of speaking up—and reinforces people’s fears. The subtext is ‘It’s not safe to share your views openly in this organization.’”
It’s fair enough to remain anonymous when giving feedback on a restaurant or product out in the wider world. But in the context of giving feedback in your team – the people you work with day in, day out – is it really the best approach?
Our Chairman, Steve Vamos, who worked on Australia’s Design of the Workplaces of the Future Initiative, says that one of the most important qualities of top teams is they talk straight. They tell it like it is.
“High performing teams talk straight” – Steve Vamos >>Tweet this
It stands to reason then that if you want to encourage an open, transparent culture, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask people to put their name against what they’re saying.
Anonymity can spark a witch-hunt
In a previous company, we collected feedback using a traditional employee engagement survey. At the end of the survey, everyone had the opportunity to give an open comment on any topic and their response was, of course, anonymous.
One year, one of my team made a sharp criticism of the team’s culture. My first response was, “Who wrote that!”. I was upset by the comment and I couldn’t help trying to work out who had said it.
This situation highlighted two flaws in the traditional anonymous feedback process. Firstly, ensuring absolute anonymity is difficult; sure enough, by talking with the team, I ended up finding out who had made the comment. Secondly, anonymity can make issues seem bigger than they are. For me, as the team leader, there was greater weight to the comment because I didn’t know who had said it.
When you collect feedback in an open forum, the temptation to speculate about who said what is removed. Your focus can only be on the issues that have been raised and how to solve them. That’s the kind of solution-oriented mindset that you see in high-performing teams.
Anonymity can stop your team improving
When I first started managing people, if someone raised an issue about another member of the team, I’d say “Don’t worry, I’ll have a word with them”. To which they would reply, “Don’t tell them I said anything!”.
That’s a really hard situation to be in. Your options are either to hold back information from the person you’re giving feedback to or to break the confidence of the person who raised the issue in the first place. Neither of those scenarios works out very well.
In my experience, the best solution is to coach your whole team on how to address these situations themselves. Help them unpick the situation, to see it from the other person’s perspective, and then encourage them to raise it in a way that is direct but open. If you can create a culture where people are happy to do this then the issues will solve themselves.
So why do we default to anonymous feedback?
In all our analyzing and debating around anonymity, we’ve come to one clear very conclusion, and it’s come from scrutinizing why anonymous feedback became the rule in the first place.
Unfortunately, in most organizations today, giving feedback is a big deal and the stakes are high. It only happens once or twice a year; it’s linked to pay structures and bonuses and so anonymity has been used as a way to reduce fear and encourage participation.
But if you ask for feedback more frequently and without conditions these factors disappear. You may need to keep the process anonymous to start off with, but over time, people will become used to speaking openly and more comfortable with putting their name against what they’re saying. Even when it comes to the tough stuff.
Moreover, if people can see that feedback is respected, listened to and acted on then you’ll be on your way to creating a culture where giving open, honest feedback is the new rule.