A little while ago, the team coach at one of my clients suggested that we collect feedback from the team anonymously to understand the ‘team health’. My opinion has been that you can explore and understand a team’s health by frequently talking and working with them. So, I wasn’t really in favour of gathering data anonymously, but since I had started working at that place only a few days ago, I asked for more information.
Turned out, the team coach, who was a nice person and was quite experienced, was actually not in favour of collecting anonymous feedback either. However, the inexperienced manager of that group truly believed that feedback should be collected that way and therefore commanded the coach to follow the process.
I believe that most of us don’t like receiving anonymous feedback. To validate my assumption, I spoke to a number of people. However, I wasn’t entirely surprised when many of them told me that they didn’t mind providing it when asked. Some even admitted that they have exaggerated while giving feedback anonymously. Giving and receiving feedback can be daunting, however, it can be worse coming from an unknown source.
My experience is that managers who have a command and control mindset do not like transparency, conflict or challenge. They see that as confrontation and try to avoid that.
How people engage with each other, and how managers and team members give or receive feedback often tells a lot about an organisation’s culture. Correct?
I can see that you are nodding your head, most likely in agreement. Well, if you trust me enough then tell me about it.
Let’s try to analyse the feedback given in an unidentified and unspecified manner. An easier way to analyse that is break it down.
- Is anonymous feedback good or bad
- What happens when people are allowed to give feedback anonymously
- How do we feel when we receive anonymous feedback
- Criticism or critique
- What does good look like
Is anonymous feedback good or bad
The debate about anonymous versus face to face feedback isn’t new. In my work as a coach, consultant and sometimes as a manager, I have come across scenarios where leaders were looking for, and at times, encouraging, anonymous feedback. Their logic or assumptions often were similar. “People feel confident providing anonymous feedback and we learn what our teams actually think about the organisation or the processes or the management or all of these.”
Nonsense!! If the culture of a place isn’t conducive to openness, people will not tell the truth even in an anonymous survey.
If people in a team find it hard to offer direct honest feedback, then it is clear that the group has trust issues. Because if I trust you enough, then I’d feel confident that you would listen, pay heed and won’t mind about my feedback.
So, in general, it seems that anonymous feedback isn’t a good thing.
What happens when you are allowed to give anonymous feedback?
How people respond to a request for feedback largely depends on how they feel in the setting in which they are. We respond and react passively or negatively in an environment that makes us feel unsafe. That’s why the ‘feeling of safety’ matters a lot. When employees feel safe to challenge the management, they inadvertently also save their employers from a lot of trouble. When they don’t feel safe, they won’t bother telling the management that the organisation was on fire, and in some cases, literally.
In a blame culture, while some people give up hope that the management would take any actions on their suggestions; few others find the request for anonymous feedback a great opportunity to vent their frustrations. They may exaggerate situations, they may skew data by giving the lowest score for everything and they may even lie if they feel vengeful. And why wouldn’t they? Anonymity provides them the veil to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.
Receiving anonymous feedback:
Here is a scenario that you will possibly recognize.
“Hi, we need to talk”:
Your manager comes to you and says,”I have received some feedback about you from some of the team members. They think that your quality of work is poor, you delay their work by not responding on time and you arrive to work late. I’ll have to take some action if you don’t improve.”
Naturally, you are taken aback because you thought you had cordial and honest relationships with your colleagues. You considered them your friends and you always assumed that they would approach you for any concern they had about your work. Anyways, you always believed that you produced high quality work. You have been praised for your work by the clients and this feedback did not seem to make any sense.
So, you ask,”who has given that feedback?”
Manager says, “All feedback that we receive is anonymous. We don’t want people to feel exposed or unsafe for providing information or feedback. And we also don’t want people who receive feedback to be vengeful.”
“That’s a load of bollocks!”, You feel like saying to your boss, but decide to keep this thought in the mind and don’t actually utter it. Times are tough and saying that could be a career limiting move.
Instead you mutter, “I understand that, but without knowing exactly what the issue is, I can’t accept or even take action on this feedback. Actually, I think all of that feedback is incorrect. If you tell me who’s provided this feedback then I will work with them to fix things.”
Of course you never get that information.
The problem in the above scenario is that you don’t have any specific information. The feedback was vague, you didn’t know who provided that. You also don’t know whether your boss misunderstood what your colleagues said about you or whether they all were truly two-faced people. If you have a weak manager, then the first thing that comes to your mind is whether your boss was making up all that feedback.
Whatever the case maybe, now you have a dislike and distrust of almost all your team members and also your boss. The damage has been done.
Criticism vs critique:
Criticism is always an attack on someone’s person. When you give critical feedback, you’re talking about that person and how bad they are. However, when you critique, you talk about an attribute of a person, and not the person.
Brene Brown says this about anonymous feedback:
“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
What does good look like?
The good looks like working in a culture where people feel safe speaking out, respect is a common behaviour, the management folks are open and honest in accepting mistakes and failures and actively ensure that their teams do the same by encouraging them.
I worked with few such teams (I have yet to see an ideal organisation) where people openly expressed their opinions and views. The leaders there created a culture where we felt safe to debate and challenge in an honest, healthy and respectful way.
In an environment like this, team members as well as managers can offer genuine and meaningful feedback in a supportive way. There you talk like mature people. And that not only helps the individuals to grow, but also helps their teams and organisations to stay on course. These cultures also encourage frequent and just in time feedback instead of waiting for a quarter of a year to deliver bad news.