What Anonymous Feedback Will (and Won’t) Tell You

A survey evaluating a team’s performance can be a powerful tool for making that team more effective. And the first message that consultants and HR professionals often communicate on these surveys is: “To ensure that the team gets the best data and feels protected, we will make sure responses are confidential.” The widespread assumption is that if team members know their answers are confidential, they will respond honestly. But if you ask for confidential feedback, it might create the very results you are trying to avoid.

If team members are reluctant to have their names associated with their responses, then you’ve already identified what is probably the most significant problem in your team — lack of trust. Leaders routinely insist that team members be accountable as a team, so the logic follows that they should also be accountable for giving good, critical feedback. But enabling respondents to comment without being linked to their responses actually catalyzes the situation the survey is designed to overcome: It seeks to create increased accountability using a process that lacks transparency and precludes accountability.

When used well, surveys are a valuable tool for improving team effectiveness. But how do you resolve the tradeoff of confidentiality and accountability? Trust is the key, but there is no easy or fool-proof solution. If you, as the team leader, are one of the primary sources of team mistrust, the situation is even more challenging. Nevertheless, these specific actions may help:

  • Raise the dilemma with your team. Test your assumption that team members want confidentiality by asking them directly. Explain the tradeoff of survey confidentiality and effectiveness, including the issues of validity, behavior specificity, accountability, and trust. Ask team members for their reactions.
  • Ask which conditions would need to be met for them to complete the survey using their names. Work to create those conditions.
  • If you learn that low trust is a significant issue, address it. Ask members to be accountable for stating their views but emphasize that no one will be coerced into sharing information they are not yet willing to share. Assure members that providing information and opinions, even if negative, will not have punitive consequences, and ensure that this is the case. Use a set of ground rules to make the conversation safe and productive.
  • Don’t be afraid to use outside help. An internal or external consultant can help the team engage in this conversation in a way that simultaneously maximizes the psychological safety and accountability of team members. It is challenging to create this environment alone, particularly if you, as the team leader, are one of the sources of team mistrust.

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