Should you invite anonymous feedback?

I had a great conversation with a Collegewise employee yesterday about the potential value of anonymous feedback at work. If we provided a forum to invite our employees to share feedback without requiring them to attach a name to their thoughts, would that give a voice to people who might otherwise be reluctant to share their opinions? There are a lot of legitimate reasons why there might be benefits to gain, but here are five reasons I came away believing that anonymous feedback is a bad idea for us, for most organizations, and even for high school students.

1. It sends a message that it’s not safe to speak up.

Sure, you can pitch anonymous feedback as the opportunity to speak up without fear of consequences. But it also reinforces the notion that this is a place that might take punitive measures with someone who dared to share an opinion. Once you instill that fear, it’s hard to remove it. And while there may be some places where fear brings out the best in some people, work is rarely if ever one of them.

2. It absolves the submitter of all responsibility.

When you sign your name to your opinions, you assume responsibility for what you say and how you say it. Is your feedback clear? Is it thoughtful? Does it come from a good place of wanting to help or otherwise make things better? Anonymous feedback makes that responsibility optional, but not required. And that can bring out the worst in people. Look no further than the anonymous comments on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. If you want someone to treat your feedback with respect and to take responsibility for acting on it in some way, show them respect—and assume your own responsibility—at the onset by including your name with your thoughts.

3. It chips away at trust.

When feedback comes in the form of criticism, no matter how constructive, the receiver can’t help think, “I wonder who said that?” Then people start making unfounded guesses about the source. They start looking at their colleagues with suspicion instead of trust. The gossip starts to spin about who might have said what about whom. That feels an awful lot like the parts of junior high that we all hated so much. And nobody wants their work environment to feel that way.

4. Anonymity makes the feedback difficult if not impossible to act on.

One of the most important things any organization can do is respond to feedback from its constituents. Sometimes that response is to do exactly what was suggested. Sometimes it’s to reach out to the submitter and learn more. Other times it’s to make the person feel heard, but explain why you can’t or have decided not to act at this time. We don’t always get that action right at Collegewise, but we’re always trying to get better at it. When the feedback is anonymous, it’s much harder to take any productive action at all. And no action eventually leads to no more useful feedback.

5. It robs the submitter of a great opportunity.

People who share thoughtful, respectful feedback are demonstrating engagement. They’re showing that they care enough about the person, the cause, or the organization to raise their hand, share an opinion, and stand by those thoughts. They can then participate in the ensuing discussion or even lead the charge to make change. Over time, that person can establish a reputation as a high impact player, someone who makes things happen for the organization. Even a high school student can do this if they share useful feedback with their organizations, their teachers, or their school, then follow that feedback with a pledge to be a part of whatever happens on the other side. I can’t imagine a college that wouldn’t appreciate a student who engaged in this way, always coming from a place of wanting to make things better not just for themselves, but for everyone involved.