Why anonymous feedback sucks

We need to get out of hiding! Out of the offices with closed doors where everyone knows everything about everyone – except for having the guts to approach people directly.

Lately I used our feedback tool to get feedback from people I worked with the past year. I generally like to develop myself and I love to check third party views with my personal perception – therefore I eagerly waited for the results. But I got very disappointed.

The anonymity of the feedback disconnected the context from my behaviour. Hence, my brain tried to think of situations where the written feedback might fit. But my memory could only rely on its consciously saved content – and who knows whether my brain remembered the right moments this anonymous feedback targeted at!? Chances are high that I might have said or done something not realizing what the effect on other people were. This is why we need feedback in the first place: to become aware of topics we aren’t aware about.

In consequence, I would have loved to get input for change, but after reading the feedback I had no idea how to change what behaviour in which context towards which colleague. I guess, I am not the only one that finds anonymous feedback inadequate for personal development.

But personal development is only one aspect why anonymous feedback was introduced to the HR tool box. Another focus is the feedback giving person. People should be given the chance to voice their opinion. Let’s explore that aspect.

Let’s think back to Kindergarten and school. We were animated to state our opinion. It was important to set boundaries and communicate our will. It is part of a healthy development. Even in university we engaged in discussions – trying to find a common opinion and discover new aspects of a matter.

And then we start a career… all of a sudden voicing our opinion hits a political context and we somehow assume that we will be ‘persecuted’ when we speak up. The classical mindset of ‘Who likes whom’ and ‘who gets the next promotion’ evolves. Everyone focuses on staying silent – and yes, the comments of many managers animate juniors to quickly shut up. As far as I have seen, most people hate this type of communication. And behind closed doors – without ‘the manager’ – everyone is honest and expresses disgust about the dishonest obedience people use just to get the next promotion. And yet, everyone follows the rules.

Instead of fixing the root problem – a toxic working culture in which people are afraid to speak up, or managers don’t ask for feedback openly – tools like ‘anonymous feedback’ were introduced to somehow manage around the toxicity. People can speak up – but only once a year, only in a fixed Q&A report, only anonymous and only when they are asked to fill in the questionnaire.

On paper, companies have a ‘feedback culture’ – but within the teams a deep dissatisfaction with the communication and collaboration can be found. This dissatisfaction leads to disengagement, low quality of deliverables, resistance in walking the extra mile, passive-aggressive behaviour and high attrition.

I am wondering, who wants to build a career like this!? Having people in the team who actually hate certain aspects about the manager’s behaviour but never tell him/her because he/she has a certain position at this moment of time in this particular company.

How can a different approach look like?

Feedback is independent from hierarchy. Feedback must be open, clear and immediate. When feedback is given, it must focus on behaviour – not on a person – and have a connection to a recent situation. The heart and mindset of the feedback giver is as important: strongly rooted in the urge of developing people by feedback – and not telling anyone to be wrong for the sake of feeling superior.

I am well aware that it isn’t easy to develop this feedback culture working in a company that fosters anonymous feedback. But I am certain that we need to get back to the basics when we want to have thriving teams: have an opinion and express it – independent from hierarchy.

And we need to get out of hiding. Out of the offices with closed doors where everyone knows everything about everyone – except for having the guts to approach people directly.

If we truly cared about the people around us – including ourselves – we would be open to receive feedback and we would be bold enough to call out bad behaviour.

[inspired by Kim Scott, Fierce Leadership]

Use feedback to speak potential

If you ever had a leader who spoke about your potential you will never forget how much power that released in you. Therefore learn how to address the hidden potential in your mentees to grow your team.

“Now we speak of your weaknesses … hm … I should have said ‘potential areas to grow'”, my project leader winks at me with a conspirative smile. Someone must have told him that speaking of ‘weaknesses’ isn’t cool anymore – and therefore he needs to use a cover word. But the intention of his next sentences was clear: to show me areas where I fall short in his opinion. I hated working for him.

I guess, if you are around in business for a few years you know those feedback situations. You might even have learned in trainings to use cover words yourself and somehow work through feedback sessions – unsure what to say and how to say it. Or even convinced that this is the final day of judgement where you can tell your co-workers all the stuff you hate about them.

And then, there are those great people in businesses – real mentors who speak to you and afterwards you feel positive and stronger. Not because the content is only polished-positive but because they somehow speak in a way that you can actually use to grow.

In the past years, this monitored discrepancy made me wonder and search what feedback actually is meant for and how it can be delivered in order to see people benefit from it.

What is feedback?

By definition feedback consists of two attributes: Firstly, there needs to be an observation of something that happened – e.g. by a team member in the workplace. Secondly, this observation must be useful to leverage a change on it and therefore lead to improvement.

feedback/ˈfiːdbak/

information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.

Dictionary

For example: A colleague sends out an important email to a wrong address. A useful feedback could be: The email was sent to the wrong address (description of what happened). You seemed to be under timely pressure and therefore you didn’t ask a colleague for review (sharing the observation). When you need to send an important email the next time, please ask someone for review (explanation of a potential improvement).

Feedback brings awareness to an area of unconsciousness. And by getting to know the information, one can get better.

Use feedback to light a fire

For sure, sometimes feedback needs to focus on behaviour that limits the career of a colleague. And by giving examples of their doing they are set free to change.

But what do you think of this perspective: Use feedback not only to state situations where a person failed but rather in which he/she has been really really excelled. There are a lot of people who outgrow themselves when you emphasize their strengths. Ask yourself: What does your mentee unconsciously do positively and needs to be pointed out?

Lately, one of my teammates needed to present a difficult topic to the client. We rehearsed the essential parts. Then the big day was there. She performed brilliantly on stage. Which I told her afterwards. But I did not stop there. I described all aspects of her strong performance precisely so that she could see why it was very successful. I even emphasized on her strength as a speaker and told her that I want to see her on larger stages and that she has a voice to be heard. She beamed for joy.

Another colleague of mine always did a great job but stayed somewhat silent in the overall group – you could almost miss that he was there. In feedbacks I emphasized on the very trustworthy results. Those results should be shown to others. They were proof of a brilliant mind. And we as a team would love to see more of the smart person behind the reliable work. Step by step the colleague became more visible and spoke about his contribution to the project.

Adress the potential!

In addition to giving feedback you can grow your mentees on purpose by getting to know their strengths. Here are some ideas: ask your people what they are dreaming about. What is his/her goal? Where lies the passion? Take some time to think: Is there any possibility for you to give your mentee a stage to live his/her passion? Here are some examples:

  • (1) Did you just hear that he/she likes to speak in front of many people? – Find a client or internal meeting and give him/her the role of the moderator.
  • (2) Did you hear a certain topic (that you are not familiar with)? – Find a colleague and connect them so that your team member can pursue his/her passion.
  • (3) Did you hear he/she loves to work alone on a difficult problem and find the solution? – Find a project in which that strength plays out.

Seeing people walk in their strength with joy and passion, lifts my mood. Therefore I always try to speak about the potential I see in people. Sometimes they are not aware of it themselves or they are unsure whether they are allowed to follow their dream. To give these people a special kick by a wholeheartedly feedback regarding their potential, is pure joy.

Try it, too.