Internal Feedback Survey: Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Anonymity

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Collecting feedback on a regular basis is a critical process to foster continuous improvement. Many process management systems have a retrospective or other feedback collection event(s) in place to foster a regular feedback loop. However, in most circumstances, additional tools need to be put in place in order to gather feedback. One of the most common ways of doing so is to institute internal feedback surveys. These are often used to gauge employee satisfaction with the firm, but are also regularly used to gather internal feedback about a project or specific organizational operations.

One of the questions that often comes up when setting up an internal feedback survey is whether or not the feedback should be anonymous. There is no right or wrong answer. Rather, it depends on the context of the situation, cultural factors about your specific organization, and goals of the feedback process.

This post identifies the costs and benefits of using an anonymous approach in an attempt to help you figure out which approach makes the most sense for you and your organization.

4 Benefits of an Anonymous Internal Feedback Survey Approach

  1. Frees respondents from fear of being judged or retaliated upon for providing negative feedback. This should, in theory, make respondents more willing to share negative feedback and perhaps the critical feedback that you would not be able to collect otherwise. This is typically an issue that arises when feedback is being reviewed by direct reports and can often result in less superior feedback.
  2. Ensures that all feedback is given fair consideration regardless of the source. Sometimes perfectly fair criticism is written-off or not given fair attention because the source is very junior, new to an organization, or a constant contributor of negative feedback. These are sub-conscious biases that can go unnoticed and lead to important feedback being lost.
  3. Leads to higher participation rates, as respondents feel empowered to voice their opinions, but do not feel subjected to consequences for doing so. Higher response rates can be achieved with any internal survey by making them compulsory or tying them to a stick, but this will typically foster fear of how they will be used and can lead respondents to taking a more protected position in responding to the survey. 
  4. Encourages more direct report or superior feedback that frequently goes unsaid due to misalignment of cost and benefits of speaking up about an issue in an identified approach. This benefit can also be achieved by outsourcing the survey data collection and analysis to a 3rd party. This can be a great approach for managers trying to gather feedback from their direct reports.

4 Costs of an Anonymous Internal Feedback Survey Approach

  • Makes it difficult if not impossible to follow-up on feedback you’d like to dig deeper into. However, you do have the option of scheduling a retrospective to discuss what has been learned from the survey where you can highlight specific feedback for further discussion and hope the contributors will speak about the context of the particular feedback if they are willing to do so. There is no guarantee that they will be open to doing so.
  • Eliminates the context of who provided the feedback, which can take away from the depth by which a comment can be explored. 
  • Can result in over-sharing or exaggeration because there is no feedback ownership. Consequently, respondents may feel more open to sharing feedback that is not fully thought through and could result in misrepresentation.
  • Opens door to unjust/unfounded criticism. By requiring someone to own their critique, they are forced to self-evaluate it before writing it as they may be called upon to speak about it.

It is important to properly evaluate whether or not anonymity will enhance or detract from the goals of an internal feedback process. Failing to do so can drastically impact the effectiveness of the feedback process.

For more on this, I recommend reading Roger Schwartz’s Harvard Business Review article on the matter.

Which approach have you had more success with — asking for anonymous or non-anonymous feedback? 

Marketing Manager, Pricing Strategy