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Anonymous employee feedback breeds a culture of distrust

The pitfalls of anonymous employee feedback aren’t often talked about. Here’s how it can backfire.

As the CEO of Know Your Team, I often get asked about my opinion on asking employees for anonymous feedback. Is it a useful approach? Would I recommend it?

My answer is the same each time: I hate anonymous feedback. I hate giving it, and I hate receiving it. Here’s why.

Anonymous feedback breeds a culture of distrust — especially in small teams and organizations.

When you ask for anonymous feedback, the first thing that oftentimes runs through employees’ minds is, “Hmmm will this really be anonymous?” They speculate: “I wonder who’s viewing the data? Or if they’ll be able to tell what I wrote?”

You’ve immediately injected a tone of suspicion and skepticism into your company.

On top of this, when you receive this anonymous feedback, you frequently end up feeling suspicious and skeptical yourself. You think: “Hmmm I wonder who wrote this?” It’s a completely natural human tendency. And in some cases, you may even be able tell who the person is from someone’s tone or word choice, thus nullifying the purpose for anonymity in the first place.

This suspicion and skepticism is poison for a healthy company culture. Particularly when one in three employees already don’t trust their bosses, you’re only furthering their distrust. Asking for anonymous feedback fuels an existing an assumption that CEOs do not have their employees’ best interest in mind.

After all, if you’re trying to foster truthfulness and transparency in your company, why resort to a covert, opaque way to get feedback?

But even greater than these cultural repercussions, the biggest reason anonymous feedback sucks is because it’s difficult to act on. I hear this from dozens and dozens of CEOs who’ve started using Know Your Company after running anonymous surveys.

These CEOs told me that after collecting feedback anonymously from their employees, they’d get stuck — they didn’t know how to follow up on the feedback, or implement any of it. They couldn’t go talk to the department that the problem was brought up in, or have a one-on-one with a specific employee and resolve the issue.

Anonymous feedback didn’t help them act on the feedback, itself. This is counter to the very purpose of getting feedback in the first place: to be able to take action.

So what can you do instead of asking for anonymous feedback? How can you encourage employees to honestly speak their minds, without resorting to hiding behind anonymity?

Here are a few things you can do…

State your intention clearly

When a leadership teams wants to start getting more regular, honest feedback, they’ll often kick off a survey or software tool or initiative without any context or explanation as to why. This can be a huge mistake, as your employees might not understand what your intention behind wanting to get this feedback.

Rather, you want to want to be upfront and clear about why getting feedback is important to you — and not just assume employees already know this. This helps clear the air and create an environment where people feel safe giving candid feedback, without having to be anonymous.

Show vulnerability

If you want your employees to be transparent with you, you have to start by being transparent with them as the leader. Showing vulnerability — that you don’t have all the answers, that you want to improve as the boss — helps your employees feel comfortable giving you feedback non-anonymously.

For example, when you announce to your employees that you’d like to start getting feedback transparently, you could say something like: “I feel a little disconnected from everyone and that’s been bugging me. It’s my fault, and I’d like to make an effort to get better.”

As a leader, simply saying or writing the words, “it’s my fault,” signals to your employees that you’re open to hearing the truth of what they really think.

Ask specific questions

A huge part of getting meaningful, honest feedback from employees has to do with the questions you ask your employees. If you want answers, you’ve got to ask questions. You can’t expect the answers to come to you.

These questions have to be good — they need to be specific, relevant, and well-thought out. If you ask a general, half-hearted question, you’ll get a general, half-hearted response. For example, ask someone “How’s it going?” and the most-likely response will be, “It’s fine.”

Instead ask, “What’s one thing about the last board meeting we held that could’ve been better?” This specific question zooms in on “one thing”, one event, and asks for an actionable takeaway. As a result, the responses to the question are far more likely to be more focused and actionable too. And because you’re asking it non-anonymously, you’ll be able to follow up with the specific person to clarify the thought or implement the idea.

Do something

Taking action on the feedback you receive is the most powerful way to encourage your employees to be honest with you. This is because, more than anything, seeing some action or response to the feedback given is what employees want.

Now this doesn’t mean you need to go and implement every single piece of feedback that you receive. Nor does it obligate you to make any changes that your employees might suggest.

Rather, you can take action on feedback to show your employees that you’re listening. For instance, when you decide that an idea isn’t feasible or that you aren’t going to implement a piece of feedback you received, be sure to explain that to your employees. Pull back the curtain on why the company isn’t going to take a certain direction, so employees don’t assume a reason for why something isn’t happening, or that you ignored their feedback.

And then when you do receive a piece of feedback that is worth acting on, you’ll want to jump on it immediately. Knocking out a quick win — especially when it’s low hanging fruit — can shift your company’s culture. This could be as small as getting an employee a new office chair, or changing your company’s phone service. But that responsiveness matters, and it’ll prompt employees to be honest with you the next time you ask for their opinion or feedback on something.

When you do these things, you create less of a need to have people hide behind anonymity. You demonstrate trust, and empower your employees to be accountable for what they believe and what they say.

I understand that this can feel scary. It’s much easier to have a box of anonymous suggestions that you can keep at arm’s length, versus having to face the opinions of people who you work alongside everyday.

But it’s worth it. I talk with hundreds of companies every day who choose to ask their employees for feedback in an open, honest way. And they see the positive results firsthand. CEOs have shared me that their employees will say things to them like, “Wow, I’m so impressed with how open the leadership team is,” or “This means a lot that you’re asking such tough questions so openly — my last company would have never done this.”

Will your employees say the same?

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.