Three reasons why anonymous feedback gives richer performance insights

As advanced as we may be, fight-or-flight instincts kick in when it comes to tough messages in the workplace. Very few people have the courage to give honest, constructive, feedback face-to-face.

As soon as you mention the word anonymous when it comes to workplace feedback, it can divide like the Red Sea.

In the one camp, you get these worldviews:
"Good managers should give direct face-to-face feedback"
"People will be
too honest if feedback is anonymous"
"Anonymity
breeds mistrust"

In the other camp, you get these worldviews:
"Good managers should be sensitive to the way others like to receive feedback"
"Anonymous feedback
allows people to be honest"
"Anonymity
preserves relationships"

This latter camp is my camp.

And I'm going to tell you why using three separate but related stories.

Prepare for a little vulnerability!

Reason #1. Anonymous feedback caters for diversity

In May 2013, after 4 months of backpacking around South America, I mistakenly took a job in Mergers & Acquisitions at Goldman Sachs.

In August 2014, I was sent to HQ for one week of intensive leadership training.

I can still remember sitting in the auditorium at 200 West St, jet-lagged as hell from the Sydney to New York flight the night before, trying to keep my eyes open.

(Laura at the World Economic Forum in 2015)

Then, a very impressive woman by the name of Laura Liswood entered the room.

She was about to school us on how big of an interference our cultural tendencies can be when it comes to giving and receiving feedback.

Boy was it eye opening.

Laura was Managing Director (Global Leadership and Diversity) at Goldman Sachs and Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders.

She is also author of the book The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity While Embracing Differences.

"First things first." Laura said.

"A crucial part of a successful team is providing people with critical feedback on their work. Without this pipeline, individuals can't improve and adjust their output.

"This isn't so big a problem when you have, for example, a sales team consisting of white females who all grew up in New York and all went to Harvard. There, feedback can flow pretty easily.

"But," She dropped.

"We have this 'like' to 'not-like' phenomenon, which is the reluctance to give feedback to someone who does not look like you and whose reaction to criticism you cannot predict."

"A manager is comfortable giving critical feedback to someone who is like her. She can break the ice, find common ground. She can provide reassurance that will be appreciated, understood and heard the way the manager intended.

"She can imagine herself in the other person's shoes and envision how they might react. They can speak the same language.

"But that same person will feel uncomfortable and less skilled at providing feedback to a person who doesn't look like her, dress like her, or didn't grow up in the same neighbourhood.

"Critical feedback is especially tricky because we are telling someone potentially negative information. In this case, that natural way of being and communicating falls down.

"The manager will be asking herself if the person sitting opposite will misinterpret her comments, think she is sexist, racist, or has a beef with the employee's religion.

"To avoid stumbling, the manager will unconsciously tell the employee 'you're doing just fine'."

Laura sighed and concluded.

And so we get a feedback chasm: Constructive criticism is not making it from one person to another within diverse teams.

Given how important critical feedback is for development, how do we overcome deeply ingrained social communication differences to get the critical feedback we want?

There is no perfect way to normalise for culture, but that's where anonymous feedback helps.

Try this:
1. Ask multiple people for feedback on a recent presentation or report you produced
2. Tell them to type three lines of feedback, answering these questions:
(a) how persuasive was the talk/ document (not very, somewhat persuasive, very)?
(b) what did they like most about the talk/ document?
(c) what one part wasn't clear and could perhaps be done better next time?

3. Tell them to print out their responses on paper, fold it, and drop it in a hat at 5pm in three days time (without their names attached)

Why is this effective for getting critical feedback?

It's effective because you provide a safe space for teammates to be open.

Specifically,
1. You asked
for feedback:
It's less risky to respond to solicited feedback than to stick your neck out and give unsolicited feedback
2. You let them type it:
They have time to thoughtfully transpose their words into your language rather than nervously having a bout of in-the-moment verbal diarrhoea which can't be redacted

Of course, this requires you to proactively request feedback, rather than sitting back and hoping people will give it.

But, an advantage of this approach is not just that you get more feedback, but that the feedback you get is higher quality.

Reason #2. Anonymous feedback is richer feedback

One of the biggest issues I've had in my career is feedback that isn't helpful. This can be worse than getting no feedback, because now you've wasted other people's time too.

Inspired by the empowering talk Laura Liswood gave in New York, I returned to Sydney on a mission to improve at feedback.

I was determined to line up a tonne of lattes with colleagues and get a better understanding of where I stood.

1 Bligh Street, the Goldman Sachs coffee-haunt in Sydney

Unfortunately, I hit some snags...
1. Feedback coffees kept getting postponed or cancelled
2. When the coffee was finally poured, it was watered down. Most of it was small talk. A few compliments and nothing overly constructive

So I shot some emails out, figuring that would be easier...

"Hey {teammate} - I know you're busy at the moment on {project}, but if you have a few lines of constructive feedback for me based on our work together then please do share - I'm all ears and eager to develop! Don't hold back - count on me to forget what I don't think applies. The main thing for me is that you're trying to help."

Again, not many useful replies. There was one...

"Hey mate, good of you to reach out. All fine on my end I'd just say to try and be conscious of printing deadlines for presentations. The last one was a few hours later than I'd have liked which meant we had to rush to the pitch. But other than that, keep up the good work."

Fair comment. Thank you.

So I walked into my performance review four months later feeling confident, knowing that everyone was happy with me. They'd had the chance to tell me if that wasn't the case.

And then my Managing Director dropped this:

"Julian, we believe you are underperforming vs your peers. Your global ranking is below what I like to see in my team. The general feeling is that your work ethic has dropped off over the last six months, indicated by your lack of punctuality and lack of responsiveness to calls and emails outside of work hours. We believe it's clear that you aren't committed to this career."

Ouch.

Now, on reflection, he was right about a few things.

I was growing tired of Investment Banking and I didn't want to be there much longer. The hours were gruelling, the work was monotonous and my social life was non-existent.

But I still like to do a good job in anything I do which made it frustrating that my team didn't give me this feedback four months earlier.

A perception had now formed about me that would be almost impossible to shake.

So why didn't my colleagues open up to me about my work ethic?

Why did face-to-face coffees and emails fail to give me the feedback data I wanted, even though I clearly gave permission to bombard me with truth bombs?

The simple answer is this:

Faced with hurting the feelings of a friend or colleague or partner, we usually stay silent or avoid the conversation.

We kick the tyre down the road and hope that they'll figure it out themselves or that someone else will deliver the tough news.

The complex answer is this:

It's this almond-sized thing in our brain called the amygdala.

It's in charge of our fight-or-flight response and it's what has helped us survive for millions of years.

As Daniel Coyle explains in The Culture Code, the amygdala sees danger, gets our heart racing, and tells us that this is a stressful event we should run from.

Unfortunately it can't tell the difference between a sabre-tooth tiger and a tough conversation with a colleague. It sees them both as stressful events to be avoided.

But, the amygdala is not stupid. In fact, it is really clever. It can come up with a thousand ways to avoid doing the thing it is afraid of.

Ironically, the amygdala is also in charge of forming social connections - letting our guard down and trusting other people. And trust, as it turns out, is the most fundamental building block of a great team.

So how do we flick the amygdala switch and get trusting when it comes to workplace relationships?

We need to feel that we're in a safe space.

We need to feel that it's OK to be vulnerable.

We need to feel that there are no repercussions for speaking our mind. This is the essential condition for humans to be open, honest and constructive.

And the simplest way to do this is to allow people to provide constructive criticism anonymously.

That's why anonymous feedback is richer feedback.

As Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin By Deloitte puts it:

"While ratings in a consumer setting may or may not be anonymous, at work anonymity is critical. In the consumer world, if you poorly review a restaurant or 'down rate' a driver, there are likely no major consequences to you – in fact it can be a good thing, because the company can get back to you to address your problem. At work, the ramifications are different. If you 'down rate' your boss or say something critical about him (even in a constructive way), you may be labelled a 'trouble maker', which now reflects poorly on you."

Now, I'm not saying that we should do away with face-to-face conversations. They are incredibly important for relationship building (just ask anyone who's been catfished).

But while giving feedback anonymously can feel impersonal, in fact it can help maintain personal ties.

Reason #3. Anonymous feedback preserves relationships

When you receive anonymous feedback, you don't know exactly who it came from.

Now, I acknowledge that everyone has their own writing style and we all use our own verbs, adjectives and emojis. So some comments may not be 100% anonymous.

But, assuming you can't tell who said what, something interesting happens.

You are forced to react to the feedback rather than react to the person who gave it.

This is key to turning constructive feedback into positive change.

It causes your brain to bypass the inbuilt judgments you've accumulated about the people you work with.

(Have you ever received criticism from one person, completely ignored it, but when someone else gave you similar advice, you decided to take it on board?)

Since leaving the world of Investment Banking, my eyes have been opened to the importance of interpersonal relationships at work.

Perhaps none more so than this story about how an office conflict was avoided thanks to anonymous feedback.

It was submitted to me by a woman called Emma, who wanted her quarterly strategy presentations to have more impact. She sent this simple email to 13 colleagues who are regularly in the room, getting five responses:

Note: All names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

Her response to me after seeing this feedback was:

  • "This isn't helpful", and
  • "Eric is a dick, no one likes him anyway"

Emma then re-sent the survey out using Howamigoing to the same 13 people, but instead allowing everyone to respond anonymously. Here was the result:

Her response to me now was:

"Wow - where were these people before?! There's so much I can improve on. Thank God I asked again otherwise I'd be pumping out the same mediocre talk every few months, boring people and probably get passed over for promotion by a younger more energetic up-comer!"

And more importantly, while Eric may still be a dick, Emma felt no hard feelings about what the seven other people who responded said (she knew who responded, but not who said what).

Emma has since enrolled in a presentation skills course with Speaker Express and tells me she's now nailing her quarterly updates :-).

Where to from here?

Remember that humans are humans - no matter how big your company is, what sector you operate in, or what demographic your employees come from.

And humans, as advanced as we may be, are still governed by fight-or-flight when it comes to tough conversations in the workplace.

Very few people have the courage to give honest, constructive, timely feedback face-to-face.

For everyone else, you need to provide a safe space for people to be open, honest and constructive without any repercussions.

Because if you are not allowing your employees to provide regular anonymous feedback to each other, then chances are that your culture will be lacking the essential ingredients of learning, self awareness and personal development.