The effectiveness of anonymous feedback

In daily life, we are so focused on execution that we lose sight of the effect our actions. For this reason, feedback is essential to make us aware of our original intentions and resulting reality. Feedback occurs when the output of a system becomes the input of the same. If you ponder on this definition, it is evidently a simplified version. In reality, the system is changed based on the anomalies detected in the output. So these anomalies identify the shortcomings of the system and bridge them. Now it is for us to decide what this system will be. It can be a mechanical contraption or an intensely emotional relationship. In similar lines, you can treat an office as a system. A project team is also a system. In a workplace, there is a solicitation for feedback regularly. There are public awareness campaigns of the feedback and the deadlines for submission. While the paraphernalia for feedback is made public, the actual feedback is given anonymously. When published, there are always questions about if the results were collated or curated. We will set aside the issue of collation or curation. Instead, we will pursue the effective of anonymous feedback. The question of collation and curation will be irrelevant if we follow this path. 

What is the reason for submitting feedback anonymously? The obvious answer is the protecting the person who gave the feedback. What are we protecting the person from?  The answer is negative consequences. For this answer, I have a follow-up question. If you do not like the feedback, then why are you asking for the same? If you have to change yourself, then you should be open to receiving all kinds of feedback. If everything is going well, there is no need for a change. A change is necessary when there are faults associated with a system. If we cannot accept the flaws, then we should not be asking for feedback. There is an interesting dichotomy in the whole process which is related to the hierarchy. For instance, when a leader reviews a subordinate, everything is transparent. By contrast, when the reverse happens, the leader is always given feedback anonymously. If the cloak of anonymity is to protect the subordinate, then there is a whole another issue with the organization. There is no trust. 

This cloak of anonymity adds two more issues in the mix which is worth mentioning. The feedback can take the form of a scathing attack. The pent-up negative emotions surface to provide relief to the person submitting the feedback. But in the overall scheme of things, this act does not result in any improvement to the working condition. Some may hope the circumstances might change because of the spewed hatred. It might improve for a short while before everything goes back to the previous state. When there is a cloak of anonymity, it is easier to become vengeful with our feedback. The second issue is more disturbing than the first. Collation and curation complicate the latter issue. When we do not know who was the aggrieved party, then we cannot design a solution which can be measured for effectiveness. Sometimes, we end up implementing a general solution which turns out to be ineffective in the long run. The new change can end up causing new problems while the old ones remain unchanged. 

In summary, the cloak of anonymity should be pulled down for feedback. The first step is to create the trust in your workplace. If you succeed in creating a trusting environment, the feedback will be given instantaneously without fearing of repercussions. Then you will constantly be changing the system for good. Isn't this result the goal of continuous improvement?

Photo Courtesy: Jurgen Appelo


  1. Nona I am quite involved in conducting 360 feedbacks and must say that I find your perspective both challenging and refreshing. It is true that anonymous feedback allows us to be more negative, and also true that non-anonymized generally leads to overly positive reports. In the end perhpas it is as you say and we are working on the wrong paramenters. With communication and trust comes more valid and useful feedback.


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