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Colleagues sharing feedback at work

The problem with anonymous 360-degree feedback

Feedback is a powerful development tool in the workplace. It helps people understand their strengths and potential areas for development, as well as the impact they have on their colleagues. This self-awareness can provoke behaviour change that helps people to become both more effective and more fulfilled at work.

For decades organisations have been using 360-degree feedback tools which keep everyone’s feedback anonymous. The benefit of this approach is that people tend to feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and observations anonymously.

But is anonymous feedback always the best approach? 

Here we take a look at the biggest challenges of anonymous feedback. We also look at how companies can overcome these challenges, and pose the question, “Is it time for an alternative?”

It’s at odds with an open feedback culture

More and more companies are recognising the benefits of an open feedback culture. But these same companies are often still using a 360-degree feedback system for annual reviews. And a secret squirrel approach where people are hiding behind their screens anonymously filling out questionnaires is completely at odds with the open culture they’re trying to create. As Shane Snow at FastCompany writes, “Anonymity reinforces the idea that it’s risky to speak up.” Surely this is the opposite message these businesses are trying to promote?

If you’re trying to shift your culture to one where employees openly deliver feedback to each other, you need systems that support that culture, not undermine it.

It can negatively impact morale

Upon receiving 360 feedback reports, people often find themselves second guessing who said what about them. And if they are hurt, upset or confused about any of the feedback they received they may become resentful of their colleagues. This is perpetuated by the added risk that people may be more likely to make petty comments when reviewing a colleague, simply because they have an anonymity shield to hide behind.

The knock on effect is that people may end up feeling disheartened and unmotivated to do their job effectively. The anonymous feedback process therefore becomes more destructive than helpful.

It’s inactionable

If an employee knows that someone on their team finds their behavioural style difficult to work with, arguably the best thing for them to do is have a conversation with that person so they can understand each other better and resolve their differences. However, if the feedback remains anonymous, how can they really address the issue?

The fact is, anonymity in 360-degree feedback takes away the opportunity for people to talk things through so they can find ways to work better together in the future.

Overcoming the challenges with anonymous feedback

If you are going to stick with an anonymous 360-degree feedback approach, there are some best practice tips that will help minimise the risks:

  • Encourage employees to share feedback that is constructive and actionable
  • Encourage employees to provide specific examples
  • Make feedback a regular process so that any criticisms don’t come as a surprise

Is it time for an alternative?

Research shows that most people want more feedback. A survey by OfficeVibe found that 65% of employees want more feedback than they currently get. And certainly for the millennial generation, feedback is crucial. 51% of millennials feel that feedback should be given frequently or continually on the job.

So would it be fair to assume that if people are seeking more feedback, that they would also be open to non-anonymised feedback? It would certainly give people the opportunity to better understand how their colleagues perceive them. And by encouraging people to take ownership for the feedback they give, people will be more likely to give direct and to the point feedback that is actionable.

From a company perspective, stripping the feedback process of anonymity would certainly support the shift towards a culture where employees can be more open and honest with each other.

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