I was stopped by a man at the airport. As I got off of my cross country flight in a daze I wandered my way through Reagan International Airport towards the rideshare area of the airport. A man in a suit approached and handed me a business card and asked me to take a survey.
I’m sure you’ve had a variation of this experience. Finished buying groceries? Take a survey. Go to the hospital? Take a survey. Get some delicious Panda Express? Take a survey. Take a survey? Take a survey.
Everywhere you go, even in the bathroom of an airport, you’re being asked for your opinion on the services you receive and the products you use.
When you fill out this survey you do so out of a position of power. You have the opportunity to never go back or never buy the product again. This position of power allows you to answer honestly. No one is afraid that they will lose the privilege of buying groceries at Walmart if they complain in a survey.
What happens when you are afraid to give your honest opinion?
How does that change when you no longer have a position of power? What happens when you do not have a choice about the services or products you receive? What happens when you are afraid to give your honest opinion?
The fear that is introduced creates a new class of people. Empowered individuals become vulnerable individuals. Empowered individuals give feedback that is honest, actionable and often negative. Vulnerable individuals share feedback that is often calculated, reserved and often overly positive. When you fear retribution for your feedback the quality of the feedback drops dramatically.
While this is most prominently felt with individuals experiencing the worst of life's crisis’s most people have probably seen this inside of the workplace. When someone in a position of power asks for feedback on their work or their ideas you often see people withhold their real opinions in favor of something that will make their boss proud. This problem is so prevalent that we even have a term for someone that does this often: “a yes man”.
This difference between what a person really feels and wants to say (Your idea sucks!) and what they actually say (Great idea boss!) I affectionately call the ‘Vulnerability Gap’.
This Vulnerability Gap is preventing organizations all over the world from improving because of a lack of honest feedback. The most unfortunate part of this equation is the fact that these organizations are well-intentioned. The risk of retribution for feedback saying their services are poor is basically nonexistent. However, the preception, the risk, that an organization might respond poorly to your feedback is almost impossible to overcome.
Thankfully there are ways to help close the Vulnerability Gap and help your organization get the feedback it needs to improve. Even when it’s gathering feedback from the most vulnerable of people.
One of the most powerful ways to help close the Vulnerability Gap is to allow individuals to give feedback anonymously.
One of the most powerful ways to help close the Vulnerability Gap is to allow individuals to give feedback anonymously. True anonymity is hard to come by. Filling out a paper survey requires you get it from someone and give it back to someone. Handwriting can be compared with other documents. While organizations will almost never do this — the fear that they may rob anonymity of some of its power.
Technology by itself doesn’t completely solve this problem. The fear that email will be tracked and IP addresses recorded can keep people inside of the vulnerability gap.
One potential solution that is near to my own heart is using anonymous surveys on kiosks. By not running the survey on someone's own hardware you prevent the fears of IP tracking. By not requesting or using their email address they can answer without fear you’re going to tie their survey response back to their email. By providing a technological interface to interact you remove the concerns about taking and returning paper surveys. (You’re welcome to learn more about how my colleagues and I are helping tackle this problem at www.pulseforgood.com)
Regardless of how you close the vulnerability gap, the steps you take in your organization to make sure the people you serve, the people you employ, and those that you interact with have the psychological safety to provide honest, timely and unfiltered feedback will pay far greater dividends than whatever investment it takes to close that gap.