What anonymous feedback will (and won’t) tell you

Published 09 July 2013 11:30, Updated 10 July 2013 06:55

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What anonymous feedback will (and won’t) tell you

By gagging personally-identifiable feedback companies may be tacitly acknowledging that they have a trust problem.

A performance evaluation can be a powerful tool for making a team more effective. The first message that consultants and human resources 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 may have already identified the most significant problem: lack of trust. Leaders routinely insist that employees 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 catalyses the situation the survey is designed to overcome: It seeks to create increased accountability using a process that lacks transparency and precludes accountability.

Without a basic level of trust among team members (including the leader), team performance, working relationships and individual well-being suffer. And when it comes to the negative outcomes of confidential surveys, there are some key unintended consequences you might recognize. I saw all of these outcomes early in my career, when I designed and administered surveys for the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, and facilitated feedback meetings for leaders and their teams:

Even honest answers aren’t necessarily valid

Ratings may be inaccurate, biased or even self-serving. But without survey-taker identification, it’s impossible to determine how each person responded and why. When results are presented confidentially and as an aggregate, they may be misleading; for example, one outlier response can greatly affect the team’s average score.

Team members can’t identify specific behaviours to change on their own

For your team to become more effective, they need to know the specific behaviours that influence their effectiveness. But responses to even well-crafted and validated survey items like “Team members follow through on group decisions” or “Conflict interferes with achieving goals” do not by themselves provide that level of specificity. Identifying specific behaviours that need to change requires that team members talk directly with one another about what they might do differently.

Mixed messages create conflict and reduce trust

The second message that consultants and human resources professionals communicate is: “The survey feedback session is an important time to discuss the results as a team and seek clarification from each other.” But it’s impossible to simultaneously clarify a response’s meaning while maintaining confidentiality. Team members who expect anonymity are likely to feel threatened when those who are expecting clarification ask about their specific responses. The latter team members will inevitably become frustrated, further reducing trust.

When used well, surveys are a valuable tool for improving team effectiveness. I still use surveys with my leadership team clients to help them increase their effectiveness, but I design the survey administration and feedback to minimize these unintended consequences. How do you resolve the trade-off of confidentiality and accountability? Trust is the key, but there is no easy or foolproof solution. As the leader, if you 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 trade-off of survey confidentiality and effectiveness, including the issues of validity, behaviour 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 aset of ground rulesto 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 are one of the sources of team mistrust.

It’s key to remember that members of effective teams help one another improve. They provide one another with regular, specific feedback about how their behaviours are affecting the team and its goals. Research shows that regularly following up with colleagues is a powerful variable in creating long-term sustainable change in leadership behaviour. To provide this effective feedback and support, team members need to agree on the specific behaviour that each member will change.

Roger Schwarz is an organisational psychologist, leadership team consultant, and president and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates. He is the author of`Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results.

© 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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