The Anonymity Paradox

How to encourage an environment where people put care into constructive feedback, whilst still allowing contentious issues to be surfaced.

Communication is a spectrum. On the left is face to face. On the right is a YouTube comment section. In the middle are all manner of different ways of connecting. Bluetooth phone calls while driving. Group WhatsApp with those folk you met at a festival. Teleconferences where one dude is at an airport and only ever remembers to press mute before he starts talking. Each of these different ways of communicating has its own rules of acceptable behavior. There’s probably things you’d say in an email that you’d not say face to face. I’ve certainly found myself on written rants that would have evaporated in a instance in a corridor conversation.


Encouraging Honesty

So, what drives the different behaviors? Well there’s a good clue in research, by Mattitiyahu Zimbler and Robert S. Feldman of the University of Massachusetts, on lying. They found that a person is more prone to falsehood when physically and psychologically distant from the person with whom she or he is communicating. This intuitively makes sense. It’s easier to get away with misleading someone when you don’t have to worry about giveaway nonverbal cues. But it runs deeper than that. Let it sink in for a second.

We are prone to being less honest the more psychologically distant we are from the person we are communicating with.

Newer forms of communication inherently create more psychological distance than old forms. A Slack group, creates a tiny bit more distance than a water-cooler gossip session. An anonymous online employee survey creates a huge amount of distance.

And that there is the Anonymity Paradox. Anonymous surveys have been part of the mainstay of HR practice for years based on the concept that anonymity encourages more honest feedback, when in fact anonymity generally facilitates less honesty.


Anonymity is out-of-date.

I had a wonderful conversation on the topic of attribution with James Gallman, who has been leading GE’s workforce planning practices. He summarized it beautifully “the trend in most corporations is towards a more open, more transparent world, anonymous surveys run completely counter to that ideal”.

He went on to beautifully illustrate how knowing who your audience is, and vice versa, is a part of constructive criticism. “It’s the difference between Twitter and Facebook. For the most part on Facebook I actually care what my friends think of me, because they are my, err, friends. So I think about the impact of my words. In Twitter, I think less about impact, because I have so much less context.”

Put another way, attribution makes you put more thought and effort into feedback. It’s a corollary of an established truth: If a person knows a piece of work will be submitted without attribution, most will put in less effort.


There’s no such thing as Anonymous.

But, in fact, the disconnect runs deeper than just a philosophical one. The likelihood of actually collecting truly anonymous feedback in a data driven world is slim. I picked apart this topic with Ben Waber from Humanyze, who literally wrote the book on the future of People Analytics. “When you aggregate data, you can’t just anonymize it. Networks are always overly dependent on one or two people in specific places. There’s always clues, and it becomes easy to work out who is who. The only way to solve that is to add noise.”

Let’s get this straight. Unless you are willing to trade out some feedback accuracy, you can’t really guarantee anonymity anyway. Gosh.



This leads us into the heart of matter. For feedback to be useful it needs to be actionable, and the most useful feedback is often actionable at a individual or small team level. Which is exactly the level of attribution that gets aggregated away in an anonymous survey. Imagine an employer gets a piece of feedback that indicates that in a particular team there is a safety risk. As an employer that piece of feedback needs immediate action. But. Um. Anonymous.

A piece of feedback’s value is directly related to how actionable it is.

Sure, there is sometimes aggregated information that can be useful (e.g. staff are unhappy with leadership), but to be truly valuable it needs to be granular (e.g. female millennial staff in the Baltimore office believe that the compensation review was unfair). Which begs the question. If feedback is not actionable, why gather it?


Conscious Confidentiality

But… Whistle blowers!! Which, apparently, is the exception that proves the rule. There is a prevailing logic, in survey companies, that anonymity allows people to talk more freely about uncomfortable topics, and that that is useful. That usefulness is weighed against every argument in this article so far. While it is undoubtably true that many people will talk more freely about something contentious if they believe that a conversation is anonymous it’s also true that many people will also talk about contentious issues purely if they know that the person they are talking with respects their trust and confidentiality. Which are all good values for any organization to strive for.

Even if anonymity could exist, why is it not a conscious choice? If an employee has one contentious item to raise on the annual employee survey, why is all of their feedback anonymous?

Here is our bet. In the future smart organizations will do this: They’ll default to all feedback being attributed, but if an employee wants a specific item of feedback to be confidential or anonymous, there will be a way to handle that too. Simple.