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Anonymous Feedback

Anonymous Feedback is a communication tool where people share feedback to teammates or other organizational members while protecting their identities.

Why would you need anonymous feedback?

Ideally, everyone in your company should be able to give feedback publicly and not anonymously. They should share constructive criticism and not shy away from direct feedback if they believe and trust that their opinions will be heard and addressed.

However, to achieve this ideal, people need to feel that they are in a safe space, a place or environment in which they feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. The work place is usually not considered a safe space by the employees because they may:

  • Fear of being judged: We want people to like us and not just in our personal lives, but in our professional lives as well. It also seems to bear a bigger importance that our supervisor likes us because he holds the power over our career and financial security. So we live in a constant state of anxiety of what might happen if our manager doesn't like us.

  • Fear of losing their job: It’s a form of self-preservation, abstaining from saying something that may be perceived as wrong to someone in a position of authority.

  • Fear of being singled out: Giving direct feedback puts you in the spotlight. Being highlighted against the rest of the employees might be seen as a threat, especially by people belonging to a different race, gender, national origin, or other identities than most of their coworkers.

  • Feel insecure: People may distrust their colleagues, because they just arrived at the organization or may have negative past experiences either with them or with similar people. They may not have a solid stance on an issue, be shy or have problems of self esteem.

  • Distrust the open-door internal policies: Past experiences in other companies may lead the employee not to trust open-doors policies until they have seen them in practice.

  • Not knowing the internal processes of the organization: As a Slack study shows, 55 percent of business owners described their organization as very transparent, but only 18 percent of their employees would agree.

For all these reasons, some employees may remain silent when asked for direct feedback, to speak up against an internal issue or in need to report a colleague or manager. These factors are further amplified if:

  • The person belongs to a minority group inside the organization.
  • The greater the difference in position between the talking parties. It's more difficult to talk to the CEO than to the immediate manager.

Until the safe space is built where direct feedback is viable, anonymous feedback gives these employees a mechanism to raise their concerns, practice their feedback-giving skills, test the waters, and understand how people perceive their constructive (and sometimes critical) opinions, thus building the needed trust.

Pros and cons

Pros of Anonymous Feedback:

  • Employees can express themselves freely and provide valuable insights: On topics that are considered sensitive, you’ll often find employees who are afraid to share their opinions. But when employees have the option to use anonymous feedback, you will be offering a safe space for them to share their honest, constructive feedback about sensitive workplace issues, without fear of being judged, victimized, radicalized or labelled in any way.

    A formal, non-anonymous feedback form will only reveal some of the superficial, non-threatening issues that affect the workplace, without mentioning the most important, underlying problems. The real problems that no one talks about because they know they are so important that they could stir things up.

    In fact, these controversial, important issues are the ones that need to be brought to the table as soon as possible. They should be addressed by the entire team before they become a source of unhappiness, conflict and lack of productivity.

    An anonymous feedback instrument gives you real power over those issues because it doesn't matter who brought it up, but that it’s resolved. For a manager, that insight is invaluable.

  • It builds trust: Anonymous feedback allows the employee see how management reacts to feedback, understand how people perceive their constructive (and sometimes critical) opinions, how are the open-door policies being applied and build up self esteem.

  • It offers a sense of security: Anonymity soothes the employee anxiety and creates a greater willingness to share our ideas and opinions.

  • It allows every voice to be heard and respected: In workplaces, where they practice direct or attributed feedback, leaders may give preference to some voices over others. Due to our unconscious biases, people of higher authority, backgrounds, or eloquence tend to command respect and attention. In such situations, the issues they raise are likely to get immediate attention than those raised by the rest of the group. However, when feedback is collected anonymously, it eliminates biases and allows leaders to focus entirely on the feedback.

  • It encourages new employees to share their opinions: Research has shown that new employees, who happen to be less senior or influential, see anonymous feedback as more appropriate for formal and informal evaluations than their older colleagues. Typically, the last thing a new employee wants is to start on the wrong foot, so they maintain a neutral stance. Using anonymous feedback can make new employees feel more comfortable sharing their real opinions on workplace issues.

Cons of Anonymous Feedback:

  • It can breed hostility: According to this Harvard Business Review article, anonymity often sets off a “witch hunt”, where leaders seek to know the source of a negative comment. On the one hand, employees can hide behind anonymity to say personal and hurtful things about their colleagues or leaders. On the other hand, leaders may take constructive feedback as a personal attack and become suspicious and hostile to all their employees.

  • It can be less impactful than attributed feedback: When using attributed feedback where responses carry the employees’ names, information can be analyzed for relevance and impact. However, with anonymous feedback, it can be difficult to analyze information accurately. It is not uncommon for companies who choose to practice anonymous feedback, to find less specific responses since details may reveal respondents’ identities. Vague feedback from employees would have less power to influence behaviors or drive change in the organization.

  • It can be difficult to act on: Since anonymous feedback is often difficult to trace, it can be challenging for the organization to get context or follow up on important issues, especially when a problem is peculiar to an individual.

How to request anonymous feedback

When requesting for anonymous feedback on an organizational level, it is necessary to:

  • Set expectations for employees: Let your colleagues know how important their feedback is to the organization. Also, assure them that their responses will be non-identifiable (no identifiable names, titles, or other demographic details). According to a Harvard Business Review article, “respondents are much more likely to participate if they are confident that personal anonymity is guaranteed.” Set those expectations to increase the chances of response from them.
  • Deploy a feedback platform: Use a trusted feedback platform to send feedback requests to the rest of the employees.

How to Act on Anonymous Feedback

Once you have sent the anonymous feedback, be sure to:

  • Gather and share the findings: A significant issue with employee feedback is that the data often ends up unused. After collecting the results, share the data—the positives and negatives—with everyone. Doing this shows transparency and makes your colleagues develop a positive attitude toward future requests for feedback.
  • Get everyone involved: Engage employees, managers, and leaders in discussing and analyzing the feedback findings. Doing this helps to build trust and develop actionable ideas to move the organization forward.
  • Identify the key issues: From the discussions and analysis, identify the key issues and understand how they would impact the organization, once addressed.
  • Define and act on the next steps: The purpose of collecting feedback would be pointless if the next steps aren't defined. Real improvement comes from knowing and working on the next steps.