FROM THE COMMS CUPBOARD, Episode #10

Providing anonymous feedback – the pros and cons

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John and Shaun discuss the finer details of anonymity and the feedback process of communications, from the inky corners of their comms cupboard.

Does anonymous feedback create more honest responses and questions, or does it create a safe place for aggressive people to air their grievances? It all sounds rather British.

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Episode transcript

John: Should feedback be anonymous?

Shaun: Um, I don’t think so. I come back to my general opinion of social media, especially Twitter. I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. I see how good a tool it can be but I also see how people hide behind anonymity and they say the most awful things.

John: Through faceless accounts.

Shaun: Through faceless accounts or, well yeah, you said it really: faceless accounts. They think they can get away with saying the most hurtful, hateful things to people they don’t know. And I think that’s where anonymity doesn’t work. But what you’re asking about is anonymity at work, right?

John: I’m thinking more at work. So in a situation where you’re asked for feedback, let’s say an employee engagement survey or a decision’s been made by the business and feedback’s asked for, you know, how people thought about that. In that situation, is it better for them to be anonymous, or be able to be anonymous if they want to?

Shaun: Well, what do you think?

John: It’s an interesting one, because undoubtedly if you let people be anonymous, you may get more comments and more feedback. But you may also get, in a similar way to Twitter, more aggressive reactions to things. Maybe people are less professional in their feedback, or less constructive.

Shaun: Less professional and less constructive, but perhaps more honest.

John: Yeah, and you’ll get more.

Shaun: The amount of people giving feedback?

John: Yeah, and probably the amount of different types of comment. I think it comes to culture of an organisation. But if there is a culture of distrust, automatically you’re going to get people fearing that there may be retribution if they give honest feedback.

Shaun: Even if that honest feedback is more constructive and that has come from a better place?

John: Yeah. It depends on the culture of the organisation. I think if you’re in somewhere where feedback is part of every day and people are regularly giving it, which I don’t think happens hugely in the UK as a society. I don’t think we deal with negative feedback so well.

Shaun: I’m not so sure we deal with positive feedback! 😆

John: You know yourself when someone gives you a compliment, you actually shy away from it.

Shaun: Yeah, we become all British 🇬🇧 “Oh, really? This is how I woke up.” ☺️

John: “Please don’t say anything else!” 😳

Shaun: I suppose, I wonder whether when someone gives anonymous feedback, let’s say on a call – you know, that sort of software that lets you see comments – do you think it would be better if only the host sees those comments, and then there is a sense of cherry-picking a question? You know, so and so was asked a question, and then they give the answer. Because my theory is – before you know … what you look like …

John: Because I look like I’m chewing a wasp? 🐝

Shaun: My theory is that when others see aggressive questions, they think it’s OK to be aggressive themselves.

John: It’s a really good point, isn’t it? Perhaps it does. But I think one of the things that’s nice about that, when people see aggressive – and it may encourage more similar types of comments – in an ideal world, you’ll also see regulation of that by other people. So people would say, “That’s not on!” They’ll provide more positive feedback as well, so actually self-regulate themselves. So being able to see the good and the bad actually feels more balanced.

Shaun: Do you mean someone sees it and moderates? The crowd moderates itself? Is that idealistic?

John: Yeah, it probably is idealistic, but if you’re stopping negative comments coming through and you only let through what you want, what’s the point? The whole idea of feedback is to show everything – to show a spectrum – and then deal with it as a whole. Because feedback … you should ask for it and then you should act on it. I think that’s one of the problems people have, and why we don’t give feedback, is because we don’t see any result from it.

Shaun: I like what you’re saying, and I’d like to think that only positive things could come from that, like a self-moderating crowd and self-moderating feedback. But if your internal communications software – your tool that you use to host that feedback – is then shown to be a bit like Twitter, how does that make the quiet people just reading that stream; how does it make them feel about their colleagues and the business they work for? Because sometimes it can have quite a negative view.

John: It could, couldn’t it? I think you could come away from a session – I guess it would have to be something quite contentious that’s happening. You could come away with more of a negative feeling about your colleagues, couldn’t you? Going back to the question about it being anonymous, that’s when you then don’t know who it is, do you, so then it makes you question other people, which kind of brings me back to … the best feedback isn’t anonymous; you’re open about what you think and you own your feedback.

Shaun: But it takes a slightly different person … it’s about being able to constructively air your grievances with confidence. And perhaps we hide behind anonymity because we’re not confident.

John: Yeah.

Shaun: Or, like you said, we’re afraid of the retribution. But again, that’s still comes back to confidence. Are you confident about your own ability?

John: When you’re looking for any decision, and you have data that comes in, you’re looking for how relevant you think that data is. So if I get a very negative anonymous comment, do I take that as seriously as a negative comment where I know the person has come from the source of that information. So I would say that if you know, having non-anonymous non … no, no, no! 🤪 What’s the word?

Shaun: Anon-non-non-non-non.

John: If you know who the feedback’s come from, you’re more likely to take it onboard. So things that are anonymous may perhaps be less powerful.

Shaun: Yeah, and if you do know who said that, you may think “that’s a great idea. Let’s invite them to help with what they’ve suggested.” Whereas there’s a level of anonymity I’m not keen is that it could always be the same people who just complain or find a reason to dislike something, but they’ll never … It’s a bit like the schoolyard, isn’t it: “Say it to my face, or don’t say it at all.” I like working with people who are confident enough to say, “Shaun, I don’t think that’s gonna work, but I have a suggestion”.

John: Yeah, because that’s constructive and that’s a conversation.

Shaun: If he’d have come up to me and said, “Shaun, that’s bollocks” and I go away thinking, well, that wasn’t very nice, and how does that help me? But then he says that to every project because he wants to be heard more. I think that’s easy to do when your anonymous on the feedback. You become that person who just doesn’t contribute.

John: Which brings us back to Twitter.

Shaun: Yeah.

John: And why people are angry on there, for example.

Shaun: Did you hear Ricky Gervais’ explanation/description of what Twitter is?

John: I haven’t.

Shaun: “It’s writing on the toilet wall.” 😁

John: It’s very true. I think we are all striving to work in organisations … or all organisations are striving for that kind of open, transparent culture where people are not afraid to speak up or say things. Is that realistic? Would that help us answer the question of whether we should be anonymous in our feedback? Is it realistic to think that everywhere is a safe space?

🤔

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