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Work Smart

Why Anonymous Feedback Does More Harm Than Good

Anonymity might seem like a reasonable concession to encourage more open dialogue. It's not.

[Photo: Lambert/Contributor/Getty Images]

It's clear by now that feedback is in high demand. Whether you're a millennial or not, the latest research shows that employees want more regular, continuous input on their performance rather than an annual assessment of how they're doing.

What's easier to miss, though, is that that requires a two-way conversation: Not only do employees want more feedback, they also want to be heard—and see the results of it. But not all efforts to build a more open, feedback-driven culture are created equal, and while some believe employees need to be able to speak their minds anonymously, it's far from clear that that's the best approach. Here's why.

The Other Stuff That Anonymity Leaves Unsaid

It's true that anonymity protects employees from the fear of retribution in some organizations, but that doesn't always encourage honesty.

The researchers James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris argue in Harvard Business Review that anonymous feedback comes with three serious risks:

  1. It reinforces the impression that it isn't safe to speak up openly.
  2. It can set off a witch-hunt to find out who said what, leading away from the issues at hand.
  3. It discourages the level of specificity that's needed to make real changes.

To take the most obvious example, when an employee complains about an abusive manager, HR needs to know the parties involved in order to investigate what's going on and make meaningful recommendations. Simply supplying that information under cover of anonymity might not cut it, and instead actually hampers a company's HR leaders from doing their job.

Organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz has pointed out that this dearth of actionable information is characteristic of feedback itself. A single unit of feedback—"Here's what I think needs changing," or, "I've had this troubling experience"—is just one piece of a wider conversation that needs to follow, virtually always requiring clarification or elaboration along the way.

Anonymity halts that conversation before it can even take place, which can lead swiftly to the (accurate) sense among teams that feedback isn't leading to real change.

The Better Way To Make Changes And Build Trust

Certainly, managers want to find innovative ideas among those who are closest to the action and learn where there's room for improvement. But that's only half the benefit to employee feedback. Managers also need to know where people have erred and where they're struggling—and why—so they can offer more than just a one-size-fits-all approach to coaching.

What's more, feedback gives a false sense of security to company leaders. Employees might be providing feedback behind the scenes, but that means they're being comparatively less transparent in personal, non-anonymous interactions. Managers won't typically realize that's created a trust deficit until those sentiments are embedded deep in the culture.

That points to the goal behind the demand we're now seeing for more open work cultures fueled by meaningful feedback: trust and accountability among everyone at the company, up and down the ladder and colleague to colleague. No matter what tone executives and managers set when it comes to transparency, permitting some of those efforts to remain anonymous risks undermining all of them.

In order to help employees overcome the anxiety of speaking up openly, leaders need to take the lead and set an example. They should host regular, company-wide meetings to offer meaningful information and talk candidly about their own career experiences and mistakes. Make those instances personal and normal, not just an occasional ritual.

As Dartmouth professor of management Dr. Sydney Finkelstein recently shared with me, "Successful leaders understand that mistakes happen, and they encourage employees to speak up so that everyone can learn, adapt, and adjust in real time."

How To Give Better Feedback

It may sound obvious, but employees need to understand that their managers are people, too—a simple reality that anonymous feedback distorts (making them into faceless powers to be addressed from under cover of darkness)—and have their own workloads in addition to their managerial duties. With that in mind, here are some tips for employees to offer open, personal feedback that doesn't have to feel risky or uncomfortable:

  • Get to the point and succinctly state the issue you want addressed. You can always elaborate later.
  • Share your concern as soon as issues arise (but after you’ve cooled off a bit, if need be). Letting frustrations escalate into anger can make it difficult to get to the heart of a problem.
  • Propose at least one solution. This sends the message that you're interested in making improvements, not just griping.
  • Be honest and candid, but keep your emotions in check. Even the most patient and understanding manager can have a hard time sifting through rancor for useful information.

And here are some tips managers can use in order to encourage good feedback or move ahead productively with feedback they've received:

  • Ask what's been going right for your employees this week, other issues notwithstanding.
  • Find out what obstacles your teams need help with, and what their top weekly priorities are.
  • Acknowledge feedback with gratitude, even if you can’t take action right away. But make sure you do always follow through before your employees start to think you've forgotten.
  • Be specific about the changes you want to see or the advice you provide.
  • Provide some honest, positive feedback along with your suggestions. Morale can drop quickly when people feel like they're complete failures, or when their negative feedback is met only with reciprocal criticism.

As giving and receiving feedback becomes a more normal part of workplaces large and small, company leaders will need to build the trust to sustain it. Anonymity might appear to be a reasonable concession in the name of encouraging more open dialogue. More than likely, though, it will only undermine it.

David Hassell is the cofounder and CEO of 15Five, employee engagement software that creates an open weekly dialogue about what’s most important, so that managers can react quickly to employee challenges and enhance team performance and productivity.