Anonymity… Is It a Good Thing?

 In Blog

By: Susan Ruhl

Here’s the situation: You’ve been hearing some grumblings about the work environment or you may feel that Glassdoor is not your friend.  Or there may have been a big change in leadership within the company.  Regardless, it’s time to find out what your employees really think about where they work.  Is it time to do a culture survey?  Well maybe.  Even though many people love sharing their lives and thoughts on social media, telling a boss (or a boss’s boss) what we really think about the company can leave us cold.

Traditionally, a culture survey provides anonymous feedback so employees can feel safe being open and honest with their feedback.  This seems reasonable, right?  Leaders worry that no one will share honestly if it isn’t anonymous.  In reality, there may be something wrong if employees are afraid to be open when giving their opinion.  Additionally, if we don’t know who said what, how can we follow up with ideas and feedback?  It’s a big catch 22.

Anonymity, while an understandable concept, ultimately proves unproductive.  Some of the unintended consequences include:

  1. Skewed results: In many companies, a small minority harbors a great deal of anger toward leadership or their workplace in general. An anonymous survey gives them a platform to vent. When their names aren’t attached, their feedback can be pointed, jaded and even inflammatory, which can skew your results.
  2. Misinterpreted feedback: Why do we gather feedback? To get information that helps us make better decisions for the business.  When feedback is anonymous, the answers can end up out of context.  It is easy to misinterpret data when we don’t understand the thoughts behind it.
  3. A lack of follow-up: If one of the respondents has a moment of brilliance in an anonymous survey, we can’t dig deeper into their ideas or recognize this visionary for their contribution. On the other hand, if an employee is unhappy about something, you miss the chance to have a productive conversation to identify solutions.  Non-anonymous feedback allows you to initiate that conversation and build upon the feedback loop throughout the year.
  4. The inability to hold leaders accountable: It can be easy to disregard feedback from an anonymous source if it is something we don’t want to hear. Valid feedback on underperforming leaders can be pushed aside as not real because it can’t be verified.

An open feedback system establishes an environment where leaders must learn how to accept criticism so employees feel comfortable being open and honest.

How to Create a Safe Environment for Transparent Feedback

Don’t freak out.  You can still use an anonymous survey. However, to get good timely feedback it’s also a good idea to encourage transparency year round.  With that said, you’re also going to have to take responsibility for creating an environment where people feel safe sharing.

Combining transparency and anonymity can feel overwhelming and I can’t promise it won’t hurt a little.  A few things that can be done to ease the process include:

  • Coach supervisors on how to respond to feedback: A point that is critical to the process is that a leader must understand how their reactions to feedback can shut down an employee’s willingness to participate. In those instances when a supervisor responds inappropriately to feedback, you must be willing to take swift action. If employees can’t go to leadership with their concerns, resentment may spread within the ranks.
  • Show employees it’s OK: Such a drastic change in feedback style will be met with some apprehension. However, the best approach is to jump in with both feet and reward people who provide useful feedback. Look for ways to demonstrate how you’re using feedback to implement positive changes so employees see that it’s safe — and even commendable — to be honest.

Increasing transparency and trust allows your employees to become active in the feedback process, which can boost their dedication and allow your team to benefit from multiple perspectives. When you open an honest dialogue with employees, you can expand on ideas, gather continual feedback and arrive at productive solutions to improve your company.

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