The Sharpening Stone – The Trouble with Anonymous Feedback

Conventional wisdom says that if you want people to tell you the truth, let them do so anonymously.

I disagree. Anonymous 360s and workplace climate surveys have their place, but sometimes they cause more damage than good.

You would be amazed how often survey respondents misunderstand questions, produce indecipherable responses, or base their answers on serious misinterpretations of managers’ behaviors.  With an anonymous survey, the manager is left with no means of clarifying puzzling feedback.

But when survey respondents are identified by name, managers can follow up personally so they can accurately understand the employee’s perspective.  This sends a huge message!  It tells the employee: “Your opinion matters.  You matter.  I am taking this seriously.”

Anonymous surveys can foster distrust.  When no name is attached to a critical comment, managers find themselves guessing the critic’s identity, which can generate a lot of suspicion, and very little of anything constructive.

Furthermore, anonymous surveys reinforce unhealthy communication patterns. The subtle message is that it’s not safe to speak truth to leadership in your day-to-day work, so just keep all your complaints and ideas to yourself until you get that chance every year or two to unload like a sniper from a covered position.

And those interpersonally competent employees, who prefer to express ideas and concerns directly, are inadvertently taught that adult communication is not the way to interact with management.

Finally, anonymous surveys reinforce the notion that personal responsibility is to be avoided rather than embraced.  People tend to behave badly behind the veil of anonymity.  We all act more responsibly when our names are attached to our words and deeds.  High-performing organizations value and reward responsibility and accountability.  They expect employees to function as their advocates rather than victims.  Anonymous surveys undermine these crucial ingredients of organizational effectiveness.

So, surveys can be a great way to learn from employees.  But anonymous surveys can be counterproductive.  If you want to improve your organization, then be deliberate about creating a climate where straightforward communication is expected, and can occur safely.  Require people to own their remarks.  Listen to what they say.  Demonstrate openness to both constructive criticism and change.  Reward those who have the courage to speak truth, and follow up responsibly to what you hear.

About the Author: Rob Skacel, Ph.D.

Rob is a licensed psychologist with senior executive experience. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Franklin & Marshall College, and Master’s and Doctoral degrees from Purdue University. Rob began his career in the field of clinical psychology, splitting his time between patient care and management responsibilities. Within a few years, he began the transition to business psychology specialization. He has since held senior leadership positions in sizeable for-profit and non-profit organizations, where his responsibilities focused on performance improvement and organizational development.

Rob founded True Edge Performance Solutions in 2000, and maintained it as a part-time venture for a number of years as he continued to accrue executive experience. By 2006, True Edge had grown to the point where it required Rob’s full-time attention. Over the years, Rob has provided services to dozens of leaders and their organizations, in a variety of industry sectors such as manufacturing, professional services, health care, agribusiness, construction, education, non-profit, and trade associations.

The Sharpening Stone

The Sharpening Stone is a series of short videos from True Edge designed to sharpen leaders and their organizations.

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