Why anonymous employee feedback is the better alternative

Almost every manager will tell you that they value employee feedback. The process in itself is regarded as a vital tool in project management and innovation.

However, their enthusiasm may quickly fade if you inquire further into how often they employ this process, what the best way to manage it is or how they use the results of that feedback.

Let’s take a look at some of the most relevant issues in managing employee feedback, including what type of feedback is best: anonymous or non-anonymous.

Everyone loves feedback. Or do they?

It’s a fact: feedback is a vital process in every team effort. Companies are aware of its importance and constantly advocate the relevance that employee feedback has in their advancement as a business and in their company culture.

If I were to think of feedback as part of an equation, I think it would look something like this:

Employee * (Management + Feedback) = EmployeeDevelopment + BusinessImprovement

You’ll notice that there are no negatives in this equation. Everyone should benefit from it. Feedback should be our favorite process. But I don’t think reality supports this logic.

Instead, another fact that is also common-knowledge but that is seldomly mentioned is the mental block that we experience when we’re in a situation of giving employee feedback. That internal struggle that we go through every time we’re in the position of analyzing and commenting on someone’s actions.

Mental blocks in giving feedback

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 bare 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.

For people who have very high expectations of themselves it’s even more difficult to get over this mental block and speak their mind without the fear of being too vulnerable.

Our Photoshop society has also contributed to this anxiety by crafting and promoting perfection standards that follow us both online and offline.

Fear of losing your 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. He/She is the manager after all. What if my view of that situation will be taken as offensive? It’s in their power to get me fired so I’d best keep my mouth shut.

For some, this is a legitimate anxiety supported by a commanding manager who might have even threatened to use his/her authority to get people hired or hired.

Yet, in many cases, the manager is just a normal person whose thoughts and reactions we’re simply imagining in a number of scenarios that block us from giving constructive feedback.

The possibility of actually getting fired because of the feedback we gave is close to null. However, our brains tell us not to take that risk, keep it safe and don’t bother with a contribution that may harm your financial safety.

Fear of being ridiculed

What if my manager thinks this idea is stupid? Have you ever had this question pop into your mind while you were writing an email or joining a conversation? Most of us probably have.

Just like the fear of being judged, fear of being ridiculed is hard-wired. We fear social rejection. Consequently, we try to be perfect so that people have no reason to reject us.

Human nature is flawed. And one of those failings is our deep-seated need to judge. Ridiculing other is a form of judgment. We judge from the earliest age, like Jane Elliott showed us in the famous “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” exercise, done with third grade school children in the 1960s.

There are many other mental blocks that give way for countless scenarios in our minds, stopping us from feeling freely expressing our opinions without fear of repercussion. These are the biggest ones and they help us better understand the next talking point.

Anonymous or non-anonymous feedback?

You got me, the title already revealed my position on this matter. But here’s why I truly think anonymous employee feedback is the better alternative: it gives employees the freedom to express their opinion without some of the aforementioned mental blocks.

Furthermore, it offers managers the information they really need in order to improve their workplace and drive performance.

Employees can express themselves freely and provide valuable insights

If I can say what I truly mean and give honest, constructive feedback without being afraid of being judged, radicalized or labelled in any way, there really is no reason why I wouldn’t contribute to the improvement of my team or my project. Wouldn’t you agree?

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 empowers employees and managers alike.

Some managers believe that this sort of power could lead to dishonesty or bias that would render the information useless. But I don’t see it that way. We’re talking about your team, a team of mature and responsible individuals who can and should express their opinions freely.

I’ve also heard another argument against anonymous employee feedback, which is that it promotes a lack of trust. In my opinion, it’s exactly the other way around.

Forcing employees to write their name on a piece of paper and give feedback that they know you will read and analyze seems like a lack of trust to me. You know they won’t be able to get over all those mental blocks because they’re human.

Why not show them trust, and offer them a free environment where the actual feedback is all that matters?

It protects privacy and offers a sense of security

Asking for my name next to my opinion will not make me trust you more. Whereas in the past an argument made to the contrary might have been more successful, today we’re fighting a privacy battle with every information we give out. Privacy matters, like Alessandro Acquisti so elegantly demonstrates in this great TED talk.

Our brains have been re-wired into thinking information is sensitive. We might not all be aware of this yet, but we will be in a very short time. Correlating this shift in mentality with the matter at hand, I believe that anonymity soothes our anxiety and fuels our need for privacy, thus creating a greater willingness to share our ideas and opinions.

Our experience proves us right

For our clients, anonymous feedback is a key feature that they value. Companies we’ve worked with have tried both approaches to feedback: anonymous and non-anonymous.

The data collected from these two types of feedback was considerably different. The real issues wouldn’t come up in a non-anonymous feedback because employees were afraid of being judged or ridiculed. Managers felt that these reports weren’t accurate.

In a non-anonymous feedback report, managers got genuine, constructive insights that helped them improve the overall work experience of their team and build performance.

Due to the fact that feedback is anonymous, employees are much more inclined to share valuable information and give actionable observations. What makes the data even more valuable is that we correlate it with moods and we track the reasons registered for any mood or feedback that the employee submits.

Managers get a detailed report of how their team is feeling and why, along with useful, anonymous feedback.

What about you, are you for or against anonymous employee feedback?

Image credit: Frédéric BISSON under C.C.2.0 and glasseyes view under C.C.2.0