The sacred cow

By Nils Reisen | 6 minutes reading time

We thought so, too. After all, anonymity seemed to be the sacred cow of employee surveys. But then we began to have doubts: Do anonymous surveys really result in valuable employee feedback? Is it used to implement improvements that benefit everyone at the company? Read on to find out what we did to the sacred cow.

The anonymity of the employee feedback is not only ensured in almost all cases, it’s also strongly emphasized by users and providers. The argument goes something like this: Employees will only be open and honest if they don’t fear the negative consequences for speaking their mind. Anonymity eliminates this fear.

Sounds logical? We thought so, too. Yet we quickly noticed that anonymity in employee surveys not only raise some very fundamental questions; it also creates more problems than it solves.

WikiLeaks or Wikipedia?

The basic tenor of employee surveys reminded us of WikiLeaks. A platform to uncover unethical behaviour, where the whistleblowers have to remain anonymous to avoid ending up in jail. Is an employee survey the right place for such escalations? Maybe in some cases it might be necessary, but these form the minority of the day-to-day problems that companies typically struggle with. Are we prepared to accept a climate of distrust and fear just to cater for these rare cases? And should they not be addressed by other means?

We believed that employee surveys should be much more like Wikipedia. An open platform where everyone can contribute their knowledge and experience so that we can learn from each other and make progress together. Wouldn’t that be much more desirable than blind esteem of the sacred cow? So we took a closer look.

Anonymous surveys are like a witch hunt

When we delved into the literature on anonymous feedback (e.g. this article in the Harvard Business Review), we quickly found out that we’re not the only ones to question this approach. We discovered some fundamental disadvantages associated with anonymous employee surveys. Such as:

  • “Kill the messenger”: with an anonymous survey, the company implicitly communicates that it is dangerous to openly speak your mind and the feedback givers must therefore be protected (WikiLeaks)
  • “Witch hunt”: crude attempts are to try to identify the authors of negative comments. Which often results in other team members being held responsible for statements they never made.
  • Let off steam: anonymity encourages people to vent their frustration and to exaggerate, which in our experience, rarely forms the basis for practical improvements.

These are pretty valid points, aren’t they? So what about open feedback?

  • A catalyst for constructive feedback: if I know that others can see my feedback, I will proceed more thoughtfully. How should I formulate it so that it is as valuable as possible for the recipients? (By the way, you can find tips for giving and receiving constructive feedback here).
  • A basis for discussions: only transparent feedback fosters constructive conversations and thus ultimately leads to concrete improvements.
  • Equal rights for all: employees and managers can view each other’s feedback. This prevents potential company imbalances, created by groups using the control of information to gain more influence.
The sacred cow and a butcher

Change needs a constructive dialogue

This made it clear to us: anonymity is not the solution. The sacred cow was in danger, but we didn’t want to slaughter her yet. With Pulse, we wanted to create an employee survey where feedback is not merely collected, but it becomes the basis for meaningful improvements, for all the employees. For that to happen, the responses must be understood in detail: the reasons and the respective context must be apparent.

Who other than the teams themselves are best able to evaluate the feedback in context, identify the causes and implement meaningful improvements? For practical improvements to happen, the feedback must thus be available to everyone in the company – in a format that allows further discussion.

Not everything must be transparent for improvements to occur

It was important to us that teams throughout the company could learn from each other. However, in this case, what is most relevant is what was said and not who said it. Therefore, the comments of colleagues from other teams can still be displayed anonymously. We didn’t want to go for full transparency with the numerical results either. For the discussion, it is the overall situation in the team that is relevant and not individual rating. Therefore it’s sufficient that only the team scores are shown and not individual ratings.

These insights led us to a simple principle: To my team members, my comments are shown with my name, to everyone else I am anonymous. Ratings are only displayed in the form of team scores. So we didn’t have to slaughter the sacred cow just yet, maybe just restrict its movement a little. We now had a plan, and the time had come to implement it.

Arguments are good, concrete experiences better

Not surprisingly, management, HR and employee representatives had some reservations about the move away from anonymity. The arguments above were useful for the discussion, but we lacked evidence that our ideas would work. “It’s not a problem for me, but it probably won’t work for the others” we often heard. The “others” were different depending on whom we talked to (e.g. call centre or production staff).

Only one thing helped: trying it out. True to our background in Design Thinking methods, we went through the entire process in a series of pilot tests with a total of 17 teams, including extensive personal debriefing sessions at the end. This was very helpful for the concrete design of the tool and methods and led us to one critical conclusion: it works.

Most employees welcomed the new transparency with “Finally!”

By now, we had grown quite fond of the whole transparency idea, but it still came as a surprise to us how positively our colleagues received the new approach. We were preaching to the choir. “Finally!” was often heard from our beaming colleagues and not, as feared, “Without me!”.

However, the feedback from over a hundred employees did not entirely convince all of our stakeholders. We tested the wrong teams, they said and therefore they gave us new, “difficult” teams, 18 in total. The criteria for nominating these additional colleagues were unclear. Not surprisingly, it also worked with the “difficult” teams.

Now everyone was on board, and the first survey started in October 2016. As expected, it went down very well and matched our experiences from the pilot test. To date, we have been using Pulse within multiple companies for a good three years. Our conclusion?

Employees are good with open feedback

The implementation of Pulse at our customers’ companies always goes down without problems. Of course, it is crucial to provide comprehensive information about why you have chosen the path of transparency and what you would like to achieve. But in the end, everyone can handle it pretty well.

And the sacred cow? It has given way to a constructive feedback culture. We have observed an interesting trend: over time, not only did the response rate of the surveys go up, but more and more employees wrote more, longer and increasingly critical comments. At the same time, the feedback culture in the company was continuously better rated. Details on this will soon be available in another article.

Do you have feedback or questions about this article or Pulse? Would you like to be informed about future articles? Just contact us at team@start-pulse.com.

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