How does Anonymous Feedback Impact Engineering Teams?

What is anonymous feedback?

When you provide someone feedback without your name associated with it, it is called anonymous feedback. For example, you could provide feedback to someone's manager asking them not to reveal your identity when they pass it on to the person who this feedback is about.

Many tools like Impraise, Lattice, and, Workday that companies use for employee and performance management provide an option for giving anonymous feedback nowadays.

Even though the manager can see, who gave what feedback to whom. The receiver cannot see the sender's name.

The Expectation vs The Reality

The number one expectation a team, an organization, or a company has from an anonymous feedback culture is an increase in the feedback that people can get about themselves and or their work.

It is almost never the case. I say almost because I am sure someone somewhere in some way might have proven in a study that anonymous feedback works for certain teams.

Let's discuss the following reasons to understand why I feel the reality is completely different.

Lack of Accountability

My first and foremost issue with anonymous feedback is the lack of accountability.

Try to think about the answers to the following questions:

  • When trying to submit your work to your peers, say a pull request for code review or a proposal for an idea. Do you ensure that your work is of good quality?
  • Ever wanted to write a blog post or ended up writing one but didn't publish, telling yourself this isn't your best work?
  • Made a cool library or project but didn't have the courage to open source it, thinking about all the criticism you'd expose yourself and your project to?

We've all been there and we'll always think about these things. For one and only one reason, accountability. If something can be tied back to you, you are accountable for it.

Most people are never taught how to give proper feedback that matters, until very late in their lives. Add to this, the power dynamics of the company's hierarchy, the office politics, and the cultural diversity to the mix. Anonymity makes it easier to deliver sub-par feedback.

As long as a certain quantity of feedback gets passed around in the organization, the management can just use those statistics to demonstrate a "so-called-healthy culture of feedback". However, it is not really helping anyone. Neither the provider nor the receiver and definitely not the organization.

Delusion of Transparency

Another common misconception among the masses is the fact that anonymous feedback can promote more transparency. To a certain extent, this is true, however, more often than not. People mistake the cloak of anonymity as a weapon for vendetta.

The receiver, even if they know who gave them the feedback, can't really confront the provider. They have no chance of improvement as a lot of the anonymous constructive feedback is mostly rants or venting letters.

To be clear confrontation here should not be taken in the literal sense. I'll explain to you why, in the next section.

Negligible Scope of Improvement

Obviously, who doesn't like to be praised? But it isn't the praise that makes us better, it is the criticism. Constructive feedback, marinated with empathy and thoughtfulness, layered with X, and seasoned with actionable opportunities is what brings the best out of people who want to rise and shine.

But this is hard, and anonymity makes it even harder to go the extra mile and deliver feedback that is easy to process, contextualize, understand, and act upon. Hence, anonymous feedback usually offers little to no scope for improvement.

Now you must be wondering if there are so many issues with anonymous feedback, why do companies allow it?

I am sure an experienced human resource professional could give you a thousand more reasons however, based on my personal experience and research here are three reasons why organizations do it.

Reason 1: Anonymity will increase the quantity of feedback

As I mentioned above, for organizations, it is mostly about the numbers. As long as they can broadcast these numbers in presentations and company-wide meetings. It helps them with their narrative of claiming that we have great feedback or an open or transparent culture.

Reason 2: Anonymity makes certain employees feel safer

This is absolutely true, there are certain sections of employees in every organization who would always feel more comfortable providing anonymous feedback. These could be people from underrepresented or marginalized populations. People early on in their careers or people who are shy in general or people who don't have the best communication skills in the common language of the org. They could also be people who fear retaliation in any way, shape, or form.

Reason 3: Anonymity could lead to higher engagement

This is somewhat synonymous with reason number one, however, it more relates to the feedback being given to the leadership or the organization as opposed to the feedback being shared among peers.

So what can be done to fix this? Well, nothing can replace good actionable feedback. It does not matter if it is anonymous or not, as long as it is actionable.

However, as discussed above, not everyone knows how to provide good feedback, and sometimes it is just hard to provide feedback even if you know how to.

Invest in Feedback Training

The first step in improving the quality of feedback for your teams should be to provide them ample training on what is considered good feedback, and when and how to provide it.

  • What here translates to Actionable
  • When here translates to Immediately
  • How here translates to a framework that people can use.

Here is a simple framework that you can start using today to provide feedback to people that actually helps them.

I learnt about it while working at Booking a few years ago. It is called the BIO Feedback model.

BIO is an acronym for Behavior, Impact, and Opportunity and it focuses on a fluent approach that asks you to point out behavior you observed in someone, the impact it has in that situation, and the opportunity or options the person has to make improvements and grow.

Let me illustrate it with an example:

Situation: Your product manager never scheduled a single retrospective in the whole quarter and you want to provide feedback on this.

Here is one way how I would approach them.

Hey $_product_manager_name, I noticed that we have been working throughout the quarter without doing any retrospectives on our team (The Behavior). I believe the team is not thoroughly aware of the things that are going well and the things that can be improved to ensure high productivity, impact, and happiness of the team (The Impact). I would suggest scheduling an hour in the coming sprint or week to do a retrospective on the team's performance and processes for this past quarter. We will use this opportunity to highlight our wins and make sure we keep doing what is working well for us. Also, we'll try to find out what hasn't worked well for us this past quarter and find out ways to improve in the upcoming quarters (The Opportunity).

As you can see, the product manager now has ample context around why this feedback was delivered. They have been made aware of the impact some teammates might be having due to this. Lastly, you've provided them with an opportunity to improve and grow themselves.

This is just an illustrative example, I am not of the belief that it is solely a Product Manager's or Engineering Manager's responsibility to organize retrospectives. If you feel something is not working well, just raise your hand, take the lead and organize a retrospective.

Deanonymysing Feedbacks

Once your teams get into the habit of providing good, actionable feedback to one another. This will happen automatically. Once I realized I had started providing actionable feedback, even in the tools that by default anonymize my feedback, I started adding my name at the end of the feedback.

This allows the receiver to reach out to me, to ask for clarifications in case there is a misunderstanding or they need more context or any support from me in terms of the opportunity.

Conclusion

In the end, I'd like to say, feedback is a very critical part of your growth journey. No one that has climbed any ladder of success has done so without feedback. If you're not getting good feedback from your teammates, manager, customers, or anyone that matters to you, you should proactively ask for it.

It is not easy, it is not comfortable and it makes you vulnerable. But if you get past those feelings, there is an abundance of growth waiting for you.

Before you go, let's connect with each other on Twitter!

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