Something I hear quite often from senior leaders is that they don’t believe in anonymous employee feedback. They want a culture where people are willing to put their name to the feedback that is given. I can see where they’re coming from - they want to create a place where people aren’t just taking shots from the sideline. But there are risks, especially around things like psychological safety. I often give the advice that there is value in giving your people space where they can talk without any fear of reprisal.
Every organization needs to find a balance between attributed and anonymous feedback
My experience is it’s important to find a balance between truly anonymous and attributed feedback. If all your feedback is truly anonymous it can be hard to take action. If someone says their leader doesn’t support them properly, you don’t know which part of the company the leader is from.
Best practice creates confidentiality so an individual is never speaking, but you can identify which group they come from. For example, the Culture Amp platform collects attributed feedback but we still ensure it’s confidential. We use demographics to put people into groups so we can look at their feedback in aggregate. The tool will never let us see what an individual said, but we may be able to see that five people who work remotely said the same thing. This level of attribution makes the feedback actionable.
Even in an environment where you have a strong attribution culture, I would still argue that there is value in having a small release valve that is not attributed. If an organization only has fully attributed feedback there’s no way to know if it’s working or not. If you give people the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback and they use it then there’s clearly a need for it. That’s why we’ve always run a small truly anonymous survey alongside our attributed feedback.
Anonymous employee feedback provides a release valve
When a leader tells me that everybody at their company is comfortable having their name attached to their feedback, I ask them if they’ve ever actually tested that. Have you done a proper anonymous survey and asked people to tell you what they think?
The case against anonymous feedback is that it creates an opportunity for people to say things without consequence and doesn’t lead to constructive outcomes. People may say something is annoying them but not offer any ideas on how to fix it. But when you’re trying to create truly creative, innovative places, you actually want people to bring problems rather than solutions. When you jump to solution mode, you’re already in a fixed mindset. We want people to share issues and then work out how to confront them together.
Allowing people to give anonymous or confidential feedback also creates an opportunity for people to say what they actually think rather than what they think it’s safe to say. Even at Culture Amp, where we strive to be as vulnerable as possible and make as much space for everybody’s voices as we can, people still choose to ask questions through an anonymous format.
The questions and feedback we receive anonymously run the spectrum from the banal to the really deep. We’ve had people ask why I didn’t want the Melbourne office to have a coffee machine, for example. This led to a comprehensive discussion around who would clean the machine if we did have it. While not a deep matter it gave someone the opportunity to raise a perception they had about me and for us to get that out in the open.
The most valuable questions for me are around our company values. People have asked questions about how they’ve seen the values used and whether they’re still effective or need to be changed or removed. That has allowed us to have a really interesting conversation about our values, what it means to trust people to make decisions and what the consequences of that are.
Somebody also asked me whether I believe the Culture First experience that we’re trying to create should be equally accessible to all. This person was in a service group and their perspective was that our company was an amazing place for those in sales or product areas, but they didn’t feel they had access to the same opportunities. The anonymous forum was hugely important because it gave that person a voice and allowed me to validate that they should be able to access the same things. These were really valuable questions that opened up conversations that may not have happened if we didn’t have an anonymous forum.
The employee feedback maturity curve
It goes to show that no matter how mature your culture is if you only have attributed feedback it’s less likely you’ll hear about uncomfortable beliefs that exist in the organization. It’s important to create a safe space where you can have those conversations.
I believe it is possible to have an environment where people give each other fully attributed feedback but it takes a lot of time to create that trust. So don’t automatically assume you should start there. There’s a maturity curve. If you start with full attribution you’ll never know what people aren’t saying.
My recommendation is to give people more space than you think they need and look to go up the curve. Start by giving people an open space where there is some anonymity with no fear of reprisal. Once they’re comfortable you can slowly move towards more attribution.