How to stop anonymous feedback destroying culture

We have a pretty terrible relationship to feedback. We’re afraid of it. We feel wounded by it. We can use it as a weapon. No wonder many would advocate for giving feedback under cover of being anonymous. Well-intentioned mechanisms like this can wreck a culture, not encourage it. Here’s what to do:

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Giving feedback is hard. We are afraid of hurting people’s feelings. Afraid of their reaction. Afraid they may take it the wrong way. Afraid we might be wrong. Afraid that there might be repercussions for us, especially if the feedback is constructive and going up the chain.

Given that feedback is hard, should we give it through an anonymous function, like a suggestion box or survey?

My response is NO. 

Feedback is incredibly valuable to help others learn, develop perspective, self awareness and change track if necessary. Why would we deny them this insight? 

Wherever possible, we should be giving generous and compassionate feedback.

My friend and colleague Georgia Murch says we need to embed a culture of feedback so it becomes ‘feedback flow’. We need to develop the capacity to give, receive and act on feedback – both affirming and constructive. This strengthens relationships and creates a learning culture.

Anonymous feedback through culture surveys or the dreaded 360 is often abused in the following ways:

  • Respondents use it as an opportunity to vent or undermine the person receiving the feedback, ‘Susan takes credit for other people’s work and is sometimes arrogant in meetings.’
  • It’s used as a personal judgment such as, ‘George is disorganised and afraid to delegate.’
  • It lacks substantive examples, ‘Henrietta has poor judgment.’
  • Opinions are expressed as fact, ‘Tony is a great team player and stand up bloke.’
  • The recipient qualifies every critical response through the lens of ‘I wonder who said that’. By determining who actually said it will either elevate or devalue the comments.

We are often not taught how to give feedback well, either face to face or through surveys, so it becomes either weak or warlike.

Anonymous feedback ought to be banned with the exception of these two situations:

1. Our culture is so bad that no one wants to complete the engagement survey for fear of repercussions. Obviously we want a culture that is healthy enough to invite and process feedback well. If that’s not the case, then we need to start somewhere and that is through an anonymous call for feedback. Make sure the survey mechanism is absolutely watertight on being anonymous. And close the loop – report back to people what was said and how to respond to it.

2. Whistleblower protection. No matter how great our culture is, sometimes bad things happen. We need to make sure there is a way that people can report issues without fear of repercussions (which are often very real).

Do you use anonymous feedback tools? If you dug a little deeper, are there some bigger cultural or systems dysfunction that need to be addressed? Do you need to hone your feedback skills across the teams?


Related Articles:

How to get genuine feedback when you’re the boss

How to speak truth to power

Why don’t you speak up?


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