Hate is a strong word. I know. But in this case, I am standing by my choice of words. In 30 years of experience talking to people who value and are trying to create more inclusion, I have not found evidence that the pros outweigh the cons of using anonymous feedback to solve organizational challenges–from performance management to climate. This is what I hear:
“My direct reports were given a survey where they provide anonymous feedback about me. There was obvious bias in the description of the survey’s purpose and in the questions themselves. I got answers I didn’t even understand, with a narrative like “not a leader” and no ability to follow up with people to better understand how to interpret, let alone act on, the feedback.
“Our HR office sent an anonymous survey to my entire organization asking them to share challenges and concerns about how the organization is being run. My team and I are now inundated with questions from employees trying to figure out what is going on; they feel like HR is on a witch hunt!”
“Our executive insists on making an anonymous feedback portal available for all employees. Instead of getting constructive input on what we could be doing, people are weaponizing it. Some people have been called out and disparaged so badly that I think their career is going to be totally derailed.”
With widespread examples like these, why is anonymous feedback so popular? Because a lot of well-intended leaders are trying to create a “safe space” for employees to share their feedback. They are hoping to give voice to the voiceless and allow to surface hidden issues buried deep within the organization. The intentions are often honorable. The process, implementation, and follow-through result in most anonymous feedback experiences, however, typically do not result in the desired outcomes. Additionally, often significant harm is done to the organizational culture along the way.
As you consider your “go-to” techniques for soliciting feedback, carefully consider what you are trying to accomplish and what will be most effective to achieve it.
5 Problematic Approaches to Soliciting Feedback1. Solicit and Retreat
You ask for input, usually through an anonymous survey, then fail to share the feedback or how the results will be used to make changes in the future. Perhaps the results are less positive than you expected or you plan to hold off on sharing the results until you have a well-developed plan in place for acting on what you learned. Regardless of your intention, the people who you ask for input and who took the time to share it with you are now left wondering whatever came of their voices. They're wondering if the act of inviting their input was even genuine.
More inclusive option: Do your work in advance by taking into consideration a few key questions before sending out a survey. Ask yourself:
- What do we want to learn?
- Why is the knowledge that we will gain important to our organization and me?
- How will feedback be collected?
- How and when will the results be shared?
- How will it actually be used to inform future action?
Here's my suggestion. First, make a commitment to share the data before administering any survey. If you don't intend to share the data, or if you don't intend to act on what you find, then don't bother doing a climate or an engagement assessment at all. You will only surface expectations and set yourself up for less engagement over time if there's no action, or if people don't see the connection between the data they shared and the actions taken as a result of what they shared.
Better, though, is that when data has been collected, you organize it and you share it. You describe what will happen as an outcome of the feedback, near-and long-term, and at the organization-wide level and at the unit or department levels. People need to know how their input will impact their reality.
Make sure you have a communication mechanism that allows people to see evidence of the follow-through on commitments over time. Identify and celebrate small wins that help people feel affirmed for giving the feedback in the first place and that reinforces the processes' authenticity. These small wins are essential for nurturing trust and then keeping engagement levels as high as possible over time.2. Hands-Off
People often tell me proudly, "I'm a pretty hands-off manager. I tell my people to just let me know if they need anything. Otherwise, I'll assume everything is fine." This approach misses the mark on two points. First, humans work better with structure. People need enough structure to understand the measure of success, and then to have consistent feedback that helps them feel assured that they're on the right path, that they're pointed in the direction of success.
The second way that this approach is flawed is that though it is the fan favorite, especially of managers who see themselves as particularly egalitarian, it really ignores power dynamics. So me saying, "I'll hang back and you can tell me what you need," totally misses the fact that power doesn't work like that. Power doesn't go up. If you have more power in the relationship, you have responsibility for initiating soliciting feedback conversations.3. Concern-Focused
It works like this: managers say, "Please share your concerns with me or with us” or you specifically ask people to point out problems that need to be addressed. The trouble with beginning with concerns is that you will get exactly what you asked for, and nothing more. You will get concerns whether or not you ask for them, but if you start with concerns, the energy and the potential negativity creates a downward spiral. It's tough to pivot the conversation to solutions or opportunities when you start off with concerns.
This is how the human brain works, right? People disproportionately remember things that are uncomfortable or painful. Think about that for yourself. Of all of the feedback that you've ever received about yourself from someone else, what comes to mind most easily? Yep, that one mean comment somebody said about you back in the fifth grade. It happens for all of us. It's a survival mechanism, so it makes sense, but yuck, right?
Instead, we want to turn feedback from a vicious to a virtuous experience. It's actually very simple to do and the results can be felt immediately. Rather than beginning with what's broken, begin with what's working well. Then inquire in a way that helps people expand the possibilities focused on the future. A perfect tool for shifting your approach is called appreciative inquiry. The brilliance of appreciative inquiry is that it invites our brains to explore what's possible, not just what is already known, or worse yet, focus only on what's broken. Using appreciative approaches, you can practice asking for feedback beginning with experiences that are positive and that elicit hopefulness and pride.4. Anonymous
Anonymous feedback involves creating systems for asking people to share feedback without identifying themselves. Often people advocate for anonymous feedback because of fear of retribution for sharing information that's critical or negative. So while I get and appreciate that perspective, I just don't see it working well. Think Twitter.
The purpose of soliciting feedback is to help inform future behavior. Anonymous input typically shares past information, and it's only interpreted by the individual who's receiving it. It doesn't allow for an understanding of the desired future behavior going forward. Nor does it allow the recipient to have the full meaning that comes from talking with the other person or persons with the goal of clarifying and gaining a deeper understanding of my behavior, the impact of my behavior, and what the desired alternative future behaviors are. I may have some ideas that I can extrapolate from based on what's shared with me, but it's all pure speculation without the ability to actually go to the source.
There are also many times when anonymous feedback is used as the default feedback mechanism. Sometimes we actually need to sit face to face, awkwardly, but with our full humanity present, and have those tough conversations. These experiences are not easy, but they promote growth–individually and together.
Finally, anonymous feedback is contrary to what leaders and managers should actually be nurturing in their teams and in their organizations. Your role is to create space where talking with each other in the service of learning, transparency, and inclusion are modeled, practiced, expected, and rewarded.5. Annual-Only
Does this sound familiar?: "We have an annual review process and that's when we share feedback." Annual review processes typically focus on what happened over the past year, which is not the purpose of feedback. To be effective, feedback must allow a person to know what they should do more of, what they should stop doing, or what they should do differently in the future.
Feedback has to happen soon after an event occurs, not up to a year later. When that much time has passed, the opportunity for a person to make what could be a small adjustment has also passed. I know a lot of organizations have annual review processes built into their systems, and I'm not suggesting that those systems must be dismantled. But they should be interrogated - are they working? In addition, you don’t have to rely solely on annual reviews. You can create more virtuous feedback loops within an annual process by designing them into regular meetings and coaching conversations. Inviting reflection and appreciation creates space for the other person to share their perspective and feel that their input is genuinely valued.
Soliciting feedback in small and regular intervals also allows you to individualize how you connect with those who provided the feedback to you. You might ask as a follow-up, "What's next on your list of priorities and how can I support you with that list?" Or, "What are some of the specific things that you need me to do more or less of, or differently, in the future? Help me to make sure that I'm able to make the minor course corrections that are going to be needed for us to be successful on an ongoing basis."
Effective managers and leaders are aware of your behaviors, how they impact others, and the extent to which they are having the impact you want. Actively seeking input on your effectiveness is key, but how you approach soliciting feedback must be done thoughtfully. Avoid what seems “easy” and instead prioritize intentional investment in creating and modeling the behavior you want to see more of in your relationships, team, and organization.
Use this simple exercise for soliciting feedback and, as always, let us know how it goes!
Learn more about the upcoming training and development programs at DJA that can help you with broadening your knowledge of EDI concepts, leading change with your co-workers or bringing much needed structure and support to your organization.