The end of every year at my company used to hit me with sudden bout of anxiety. Not because of any particular thing to do with the business; December is usually our best month. It’s because that’s when my partners and I would solicit anonymous reviews from our employees–a practice we’re now winding down.
The fact that those reviews filled me with fear and loathing isn’t why we’re axing them, though. It’s leaders’ jobs to respond to their teams’ concerns, take tough criticism to heart, and move everybody forward. We decided to end the practice because the anonymity was hindering that crucial “moving everybody forward” part.
If the past year’s HR crises have proved anything, it’s that employees need safe places where they can report workplaces issues and trust that they’ll be dealt with. That absolutely demands confidentiality, and in some cases anonymity. But those two things aren’t identical, mutually exclusive, or even mutually reinforcing. Here’s how my company learned that the hard way.
Helpful Insights Versus Hurt Feelings
Some of the things in my review would be nice:
“Keep up the good work.”
“Thanks for focusing so much on company culture.”
“I would love to get him in front of more of our bigger clients next year.”
This made me feel good, although I wished I knew who said it so I could thank them.
But then there would be feedback like this (and these come verbatim from my actual 2016 review):
“He needs to be more professional and grow up.”
“He sometimes undermines his own leadership.”
“Does he even know what he’s doing?”
We’d instituted anonymous reviews of our senior leaders because we wanted to get better and didn’t want anybody to feel afraid to speak up. But many of the reviews left us with little but hurt feelings: In which situations did I need to be more professional? What particular things were I doing to undermine my leadership? I take criticism like this seriously, but without the ability to ask follow-up questions, I couldn’t take much action on it. Yet I knew that asking for more specificity would reveal reviewers’ identities. Lacking that, a snide, vague remark like, “Does he even know what he’s doing?” just made me want to find the asshole who said it and put greasy fingerprints all over their computer screen.
And so our anonymous review process, set up to make people feel safe while giving us information to help us improve, only made us unhappy.
A similar thing used to happen at our quarterly meetings when we founders would answer questions shared anonymously by employees. Many would be great: “What’s the product road map for next year?” “Is there a plan to do something about not enough room on the bike rack?” “Which of the founders can grow a better beard?” (The answer is Dave.)
But inevitably there’d be a couple snarky questions: “When are we going to get competent leadership?” Some revealed that an employee was feeling strung thin (“Why do some people get to slack off while I bust my ass?”) or heartbreakingly isolated (“I don’t feel accepted on my team”). Since we didn’t know who, we felt powerless to help. Plus, even if 98% of the company was happy, that embittered 2% managed to emotionally hijack the conversation.
Samuel Culbert of UCLA has spent his entire career re-envisioning management to address issues like the ones we’d walked right into with our anonymous review process. His new book, Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions, shows how many common practices that are meant to help employees feel safe actually make things worse. One of the biggest culprits, he says, is anonymity.
A slew of companies and apps (like Blind, Sarahah, Sayat.me, and Suggestion Ox) exist based on the idea that anonymous reviews help people and organizations get better. The employee engagement gurus at Hppy claim that anonymity allows employees to “express themselves freely and provide valuable insights,” and that “an anonymous feedback instrument gives you real power” to combat issues that threaten your organization.
However, as Culbert sees it, “the idea that anonymous feedback can be constructive is based on assumptions that betray human-nature common sense”–including:
- Anonymity reinforces the idea that it’s risky to speak up.
- It can be mistaken for objectivity, despite making it easier to push an opinion as fact, grind an axe, or peddle an outright lie. Because it doesn’t allow for follow-up, anonymity can make dubious statements the final word. “It assumes people giving feedback are unbiased,” Culbert says. “It’s the same logic that contends hate mail should be believed.” Of course, sometimes it should be! But probably not all the time, and the key is being able to tell the difference.
- Anonymous feedback presumes that the people who receive it will interpret it the way the people providing it intended, which Culbert argues they won’t: “One manager’s ‘team player’ is another manager’s ‘conflict avoider’.”
- Anonymity can set off an emotionally charged hunt for the person behind them, sowing frustration and fear rather than a good-faith effort to find solutions.
- Anonymous feedback is often completely inactionable. With no chance for a conversation, it’s impossible to tease out the nuances or check to see whether any remedies are working.
In other words, as Culbert bluntly puts it, “It’s a stupid exercise that destroys goodwill and teamwork.”
Is Anonymity Ever Valuable?
Harvard Business Review has reported on numerous studies finding that “when employees can voice their concerns freely, organizations see increased retention and stronger performance.” One study showed, for example, that teams at financial-services companies whose members spoke up more had much better financial results than others.
For my upcoming book Dream Teams, I conducted a national study of employee/employer dynamics at 500 U.S. companies, surveying a total of 879 employees. One of the strongest findings was that the ability to speak freely, disagree with others’ opinions, and express one’s point of view each correlated strongly with how innovative the company was. The more people could speak up, the more groundbreaking the company’s progress.
The #MeToo movement is a perfect example of this on a national scale. For decades, countless women (and many men) have not spoken up about workplace sexual assault and harassment because, among other things, they risked personal or professional retaliation for stepping forward. Now that our culture is (albeit fitfully and unevenly) making it safer to speak out about inappropriate workplace behavior, more people are coming forward with their stories. But it took dozens of trailblazers brave enough to put their names behind their stories for things to begin to change; it’s unlikely that Harvey Weinstein would ever have been outed for his alleged crimes if only anonymous people had accused him.
In fact, there are only two categories of instances where anonymity tends to be helpful in resolving workplace issues:
- Anonymity can allow people to express unpopular ideas that might not otherwise get surfaced but are useful for sparking debate and different thinking. If it’s not safe to go against the grain, an anonymous idea box can be helpful. However, if the team dynamic is right, it should be safe to express unpopular ideas anyway.
- Anonymity can be important for reporting HR issues, like sexual harassment, in environments where coming forward is risky or unsafe for the victim. Unfortunately, if a specific issue is to be resolved, the identity of the accuser often has to be revealed confidentially to investigators. Not only does anonymous reporting make that difficult, it can even undermine trust that confidential allegations will be looked into seriously. This puts victims of mistreatment in a double bind, leading too many to simply not report issues.
The real goal should be to make your workplace safer for people to speak up non-anonymously, even if they need to do so confidentially. This distinction is crucial. To get there, you really have just two options:
- If appropriate, train the offender to change their behavior.
- Terminate them.
Whichever course you take, its outcome needs to be visible to others. That’s the only way you’ll instill confidence in your team members that speaking up has a positive impact. Otherwise, if you ignore or tolerate the behavior (and again, sometimes anonymous feedback leaves you no other choices), you’ll poison your company culture. And people will want to be anonymous again.
Combating Fear With Candor
“The antidote to fear is acceptance,” says Jim Dethmer, founder of the Conscious Leadership Group. Creating an accepting environment is primarily leaders’ responsibility, but everyone in an organization contributes. To do this, Dethmer suggests each of us do the following:
- Practice listening. “The key to acceptance is non-judgmental listening,” he explains. “People’s fear decreases when they experience someone really listening to them and seeking to understand them deeply.”
- Hone your self-awareness. Are you entering situations and confrontations in a way that creates fear? “This level of self-awareness, personal responsibility, and ownership goes a long way for creating trust-based versus fear-based cultures,” Dethmer says.
- Ask for candid feedback. Inviting candor helps people feel more comfortable using it, and helps you to be less defensive when you hear things you don’t want to hear.
- Offer constructive feedback in a supportive way. “That shows others how to be candid,” Dethmer says. “Conscious candor done well breeds more candor.”
About a year ago, a student of Dethmer’s conscious leadership philosophy joined the C-suite of our company. She helped us teach each other how to deliver feedback in ways that make others less defensive. Through a series of town hall discussions with our employees, she helped us get the company on board with removing anonymity and implementing candor (paired where necessary, of course, with confidentiality).
All this helped us start a culture shift. It was always a pretty good place to work (I think), and we still have some habits to work out of our system. (We just sent staff an innocent questionnaire the other day, and forgot to make it un-anonymous–force of habit!) But the mind-set change so far has helped many previously unhappy employees breathe easier at work, and cut down negativity.
Now I just have to work on that beard.