If you can figure out whose feedback you’re reading from what it says, how it’s said, or by applying basic data filters, then guess what? Your feedback isn’t anonymous.
Cautionary tale 1: anonymous feedback is the enemy of specificity
Ken’s had a rough month dealing with issues in the very specialized reports that he owns. So he has a choice to make at feedback time.
a) give open and honest feedback on the reporting problems in the hopes that this feedback leads to changes in the process and less frustration in future, or b) not say anything about the reports so he doesn’t look unprofessional, incompetent, or otherwise incapable.
This very specific feedback will be easily traced back to him, so he can either own it, frame the feedback in super broad terms, or say nothing. The last two of these options will have the same outcome for Ken: due to lack of specific, actionable feedback, his reporting problem will get no attention.
Cautionary tale 2: anonymous feedback is the enemy of trust
The trend in most corporations is towards openness and transparency – and anonymous surveys run completely counter to that.
Kelly is feeling distinctly disengaged and says as much in her quarterly feedback. She’s been told it’s anonymous, and she’s careful to not say anything that could identify her. Her feedback is deliberately worded, doesn’t mention her role, any specific experience or the office in which she works. It’s also brutally honest about workloads, workplace toxicity and management ineptitude.
Unfortunately, Kelly has overlooked the fact she’s the only female senior engineer over the age of 50 at the company. Which is basic employee data that the HR system records against all feedback received, and which can be used to filter responses.
It’s anonymous feedback, for a given value of.
Anonymity is the enemy of action
Management is put in an interesting position when it comes to doing something (anything!) useful with anonymous feedback.
They can’t pull Ken or Kelly aside to discuss their feedback without breaching trust and destroying any pretense of anonymity. The first time you do that you pretty much guarantee nobody will believe any future claims of anonymity, or risk saying what they really think for fear of being outed.
Without talking to Ken it’s difficult to know if the reports are actually broken, if changes to the processes weren’t communicated properly, or if he just needs more training.
Without discussing Kelly’s feedback further there’s no real way of telling if she’s the only one who feels this way, or if she was simply the only one who spoke up about it.
Is management going to commit time and money to solving a problem for which they have no sense of scope?
So maybe they decide to take a closer look at how things work in the engineering team. But what happens when engineering finds out they’re under the microscope following the feedback round? What happens when Kelly finds out?
And doing nothing’s not the best solution. That just means the situation will fester, potentially costing the company Ken, Kelly and anyone else who’s similarly affected.
Anonymity implies that speaking up is a risk
… and, very occasionally, it is
In some very specific situations anonymity makes sense: if people have sensitive information to share, or there’s a real risk of retaliation, they may be more likely to speak up if they won’t be identified. Which is understandable. But it shouldn’t make anonymity the default; if you can ensure confidentiality on sensitive issues then there’s no reason not to talk openly about everything else.
Build a culture of trust, because giving honest feedback shouldn’t be career suicide
The ideal situation is a workplace in which communication is open and honest, and where people trust each other enough to have difficult conversations. Then you don’t need the promise of anonymous feedback to help people feel safe when they have something to say: they always feel safe, so there’s no reason not to speak up.
The ability to speak freely, disagree and discuss opinions is strongly correlated with company innovativeness; it’s something to encourage, not smother with anonymous feedback systems.