Breaking through the feedback loop

Is anonymous feedback costing you real insights into staff wellbeing? Mike Carden of Joyous joins HRD to share his thoughts

Breaking through the feedback loop

When it comes to the workplace, anonymity has increasingly emerged as the perceived gold standard for gathering feedback. Staff should be free to express their true thoughts without fear of repercussion, shouldn’t they? Most HR leaders would likely agree that this is the case.

But Mike Carden, CEO of Joyous, posits that this approach is wrongfooted to begin with, the result of larger issues with corporate workplace culture. Feedback, Carden notes, is an opportunity for a business to grow and improve. It should spark positive change in its wake.  

“Your workplace should be a place of psychological safety,” says Carden. “When you favour anonymised feedback, you’re essentially saying that this is a ‘secret’ – and accordingly implying that it might be unsafe.”

The ultimate goal of feedback, Carden explains, is to drive better change within the workplace. That means that the conversations which are actually being had around these topics needs to be looked at more closely.

“If you’re forcing yourself to be open as a business, you have to force yourself to think about the outcomes you want and the conversations you’ll need to have to drive that,” says Carden. 

He also notes that too often there is a confusion between “anonymous” and “confidential” within the workplace.

“Confidentiality is designed to protect specific individuals in sensitive situations,” says Carden. “There are any number of serious issues that can arise in the workplace that might require confidentiality – they are entirely different to giving the impression that feedback needs to be kept secret.”

A secretive approach presents problems on a number of fronts, Carden notes. Perhaps first and foremost, employees are more likely to withhold honest feedback, which prevents serious issues from being addressed and potentially has flow-on effects to other areas of the business. It also reduces accountability when negative feedback does arise; if it goes unacknowledged or unaddressed, staff are more likely to become frustrated.  

“One thing we tend to find with anonymised surveys is that the outcomes tend to be averaged,” says Carden. “Say, for example, that you ask whether employees are happy with a given situation in the workplace and 90% respond ‘yes’. On paper, you’re doing well! But that doesn’t necessarily scale, particularly with larger companies; if you’ve got a workforce of 1000 people, that means there’s 100 people who make up that unhappy 10%, rather than just a disgruntled individual or two.”

Instead, Carden notes, HR leaders in the workplace should be looking for better ways to drive transparency and create a better workplace culture in its wake. Doing so enables problems to be addressed far more rapidly and with the appropriate response, while also increasing inclusion. Multiple micro-actions are often more effective solutions to macro problems, rather than trying to implement one-size-fits-all solutions.  

Carden believes that this is particularly crucial at the moment, given the remote working conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Worker needs are far more individualised, but existing feedback systems aren’t always reflective of that.

“I think we’ve all been in situations where HR rolls out a large-scale solution that’s well-intentioned but doesn’t actually address day-to-day needs,” laughs Carden. “The situation we’re in now is particularly prone to that, in part because it’s so unprecedented. But the truth is that HR needs to both be providing a safe environment to provide feedback, while also looking at that feedback on a much more individualised level.”

Ultimately, driving transparency is going to drive a better company, says Carden.

“In our own research, we’ve found that employees tend to be much more concerned about whether their feedback is actually being heard in a meaningful way than they are about anonymity,” says Carden. “If, as an HR leader, you’ve created an environment where employees feel safe being honest, then this shouldn’t be a problem.”

The Employee Experience Genome Project is a set of questions and conversation starters designed to stimulate conversation and encourage more meaningful feedback. Download your free copy here.

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