Good feedback is the lifeblood of a great team culture.
A manager’s ability to make well-informed, high-quality decisions relies on the flow of accurate and timely information from many sources. Employees comprise possibly the most critical source of feedback as their everyday efforts determine whether a strategy- and therefore a business- finds success.
Especially as teams transition to an unprecedented era of hybrid work setups, leaders must invest in the tools that allow information to easily flow both top-down and bottom-up through the organization. But should those tools allow for anonymity or not when soliciting employee feedback?
Anonymity provides a platform for individuals to voice concerns without the threat of punishment from higher-ups. Depending on several factors, this anonymity can either improve or damage the quality of feedback received.
Let’s take a look at the benefits and pitfalls of anonymizing surveys when collecting employee feedback.
Con: Inability to Follow-Up on Feedback
Feedback related to individual issues can be useless for leaders when anonymized. An anonymous survey response that says “I cannot grow in my role” or “My manager does not prioritize my needs” is impossible to act on if it’s one response out of many. When comments are vague, leaders may have a difficult time knowing how to respond and act on feedback. Quality feedback requires good context, which may be lacking if the response is anonymous.
There also may be some matters shared through anonymous channels that demand, legally, action be taken. For this reason, it is crucial that before sending anonymous employee surveys, leaders ensure that their teams understand the proper HR reporting processes in place for handling matters related to harassment, discrimination, or inter-personal conflict.
Pro: Patterns of Responses Inform Action
Over time, patterns of responses help leaders evaluate the feel of their team and the effectiveness of their culture efforts. For this reason, anonymous employee feedback is most useful for assessing overall team health. Any survey should frame feedback as related to improving the culture and productivity of the team.
At Align, we include a regular opportunity for anonymous feedback with our eNPS question (“On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend working at this company to a friend or family member?”) and the follow up (“How can we make this a 10?”). This frames the response in terms of overall improvements to the organization’s culture rather than to the job experience of one specific individual.
Con: Damaging to Poor Transparency
If you’re struggling to improve trust and transparency in your organization, anonymous feedback may provide a fallback to face-to-face honesty. Creating a culture of honesty and trust can be a gradual process that starts with hiring and evaluating talent around a shared set of values.
If your organization contains toxic personalities or personalities that do not align with your shared values, those individuals will undermine opportunities for feedback by airing personal grievances. These disengaged employees may leave over time, but managers won’t be able to prevent their bad faith responses from damaging the team’s progress towards transparency.
Pro: Beneficial to Good Transparency
If your team shares a common set of core values and a vision for progress, anonymous feedback helps your leaders assess how well they are living up to their stated values and progressing towards the shared vision. Every individual will feel comfortable sharing their honest opinions about how to improve team culture and execution of strategy.
For organizations that invest in giving positive feedback to their employees, employees in return provide better feedback to management. A study of manufacturing workers published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that “perceived support was positively related to… the constructiveness of anonymous suggestions for helping the organization.”
Simply put, anonymous feedback will not improve your team’s transparency if it is not already a value shared by every member of the team.
Con: Reveals Management’s True Intention
What if leaders claim to value openness and transparency, but overreact when faced with critical anonymous feedback?
Any effort by managers to de-anonymize feedback will undermine a culture of honesty instantly. Before sending anonymous surveys, leaders should consider their potential reactions to both positive and negative feedback.
Soliciting feedback is an act of vulnerability. Providing it to the people with the power to promote or fire you is as well. If management does live up to their stated goal of transparency, employees will very quickly disengage and keep constructive feedback to themselves.
Pro: Honesty without Hierarchy
Transparency is remarkably easy to measure in an organization. If you’re already openly measuring and tracking it, you’re probably doing a good job.
Why does transparency correspond with success?
When an organization embraces true transparency, the best ideas quickly surface to the top. Transparency allows individuals to understand how their work matters and contributes to the whole. When they see opportunities to improve processes or shift strategic direction, transparency gives them the comfort to speak up.
Hierarchies of management work well to centralize and delegate critical decision-making. They fail however when information remains stuck within job levels or silos. Anonymous employee feedback creates the psychological safety needed for every contributor to put forth their best ideas without worrying about office politics or the opinions of their direct supervisors.
When every team member is empowered with strong data and opportunities to provide feedback (without judgment), a culture of transparency will quickly follow.
Finding the Right Tools for Your Team
As the points above show, sometimes anonymous surveys are the right choice. Other times they aren’t. When evaluating feedback tools, it makes sense to choose one that allows for either public or anonymized survey responses.
Most critically, a tool should allow you to understand changes in engagement over time. Here at Align, we’ve written about how a single anonymous, numerical score for engagement, eNPS, provides that consistent insight into team culture. However you choose to measure your culture, a consistent approach with transparent sharing of results is key to improving engagement.
To learn more about building a culture of engagement on your team, check out our full Leader’s Guide to Managing a Happy and Productive Remote Team.