Why You Should Avoid Anonymous Performance Feedback

Anonymous performance feedback is a popular component of many an organization's performance review process. However, while it is widely used, it can also be problematic for your review process.

The primary reason anonymous feedback is included in a review process is because of a worry that peers and even managers won't provide fully honest or critical comments about a coworker if they know their name will be tied to the criticism.

While that is one way to ensure that feedback isn't excessively rosy, it may lead to less than useful feedback by omitting specific details related to a project or account. Even though these details help mask the reviewer, they are valuable to the employee being reviewed because they help trigger specific memories needed for reflection.

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Anonymous, but Ambiguous

Without being able to really talk through the narrative behind the a negative assessment, you may end up with review conversations that sound a little like this:

Reviewer: In general, your peers felt that there were times when you could have performed at a higher level over the past year.

You: That's weird. I don't really remember coming up short. Do you have any specific examples?

Reviewer: Well, I can't really do that because the feedback is anonymous, and those details might make it clear who gave you that negative feedback.

As a result, employees can have difficulty fully digesting the criticism and working on improving. In the worst cases, comments without those specific details can result in a performance review that negatively focuses on "why you didn't get promoted" as opposed to a positive conversation centering on "how you can improve." Effective feedback always looks forward, not backward.

While it's understandable that given a choice between overly positive feedback and imperfect balanced feedback, you might opt for cultivating the quality feedback and looking for other ways to synthesize that information into useful direction for your employees. Fortunately, the two options aren't mutually exclusive.

The Root of the Problem

The main issue lies in how comfortable your employees are with giving and receiving negative performance feedback, which admittedly is something that takes getting used to. By settling on anonymous feedback, you avoid the issue entirely and end up with subpar reviews and employees unwilling to publicly own their comments. On the other hand, with some training and encouragement you can face the issue head on.

Often, employees avoid providing constructive criticism because they aren't used to doing so. It can be an awkward situation where the other person's reaction is unpredictable and potentially emotional. This can be made worse with an annual review process where feedback is only collected and provided once a year, a situation where it can be challenging to remember everything that happened over the previous year.

Solved Through Training and Practice

The solution should be fairly evident - more frequent performance conversations. Even if formal reviews still happen on an annual cycle, encouraging managers and project leaders to discuss performance - both good and bad - with their direct reports on at least a monthly basis will go a long way towards evolving into a culture with open feedback. Not only will it increase the comfort level with giving and receiving criticism, but it will also ensure that it is timely and therefore more meaningful.

Additionally, it pays to provide your employees with review training. Bringing everyone together to discuss expectations and outline how to best provide criticism will help acclimate your organization towards this change in process and limit any surprises. Some key messages to convey:

  • Give feedback in a timely manner to allow for details to be fresh in everyone's memory.
  • Avoid embarrassment by keeping negative comments to private one-on-one conversations.
  • Conduct reviews in an unemotional manner to avoid argument and maintain professional discussion.
  • Giving credit where it is due is just as important as addressing poor performance.
  • Prioritize these discussions to ensure they occur on a regular basis.
  • Emphasize that feedback from managers, peers and direct reports are all crucial for improvement and seeking retribution for negative reviews will not be tolerated.

With the help of training and practice, feedback quality should increase beyond what you could expect from anonymous reviews.

Do you use anonymous feedback? What holds you back from keeping your your process transparent?