I hate anonymous feedback.
I consider myself a reflective practitioner and am always seeking ways to learn and grow. I very much value the opinions of others as a powerful mirror and tool to help that growth. I also recognize that, often, those around me can see things that I cannot.
And, yet, I don’t find anonymous feedback to be helpful at all. It’s never specific enough, and I always have 100 clarifying questions. It’s never given in such a way that I believe is truly meant for growth. Also, I truly struggle with taking seriously words with which people do not feel comfortable associating their name.
And, so, inevitably, each time I receive anonymous feedback, it sends me into a spiral over over-analysis and over-thinking and, actually, never leads to the growth for which it was (I hope) intended.
In both her books Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead, Brene Brown shares the advice of taking a one-inch square piece of paper and using it to write the names of the people whose opinions matter to you. She encourages you to stick with the one-inch (and to not write the names in super tiny print) because you are supposed to edit and be very discerning about whose names you list. She also says that the people on this paper aren’t supposed to be people who will approve of anything you say or do or just say, “yes." These are people who care enough to be honest, people who know you well enough to give advice that aligns with who you are authentically, people who have earned the right to have an opinion about things that matter to you.
In his latest book, Hidden Potential, Adam Grant shares similar advice about the role and value of seeking input from others. In the second chapter, called “Human Sponges: Building the Capacity to Absorb and Adapt,” Grant discusses the value of being sponge-like in proactively seeking out and absorbing information from around us – with the caveat that it be the right people.
For Grant, two conditions are essential to receive thai sponge-like status: growth and proactivity.
The chapter states that often people are not interested in true growth, rather just an ego boost. This is not being a sponge. And, sometimes people passively absorb advice and information rather than proactively seeking it for the purposes of growth. This is also not sponge-like. He shares, “Absorptive capacity is the ability to recognize, value, assimilate, and apply new information. It hinges on two key habits: The first is how you acquire information: Do you react to what enters your field of vision, or are you proactive in seeking new knowledge, skills, and perspectives? The second is the goal you’re pursuing when you filter new information: Do you focus on feeding your ego or fueling your growth?”
In one image, Grant presents a Venn diagram, showing one circle of people who care (want what is best for you), another circle shows people with familiarity (know you well), and the third circle is credibility (have relevant expertise). In the middle, at the intersection of these three, he tells you to “mine this for gold.”
And now I understand even more why I hate anonymous feedback. While I may be proactively seeking it, there is no way for me to ascertain if the people giving it fit anywhere in this diagram, let alone in the center.
And I’ve tried. For years, I had to administer anonymous surveys to my students as part of school policy. I would spend time with them beforehand talking about the purpose of the surveys and what kind of feedback would be helpful, and I’d still get comments like, “I wish we did more of that one thing.” This is not helpful. I would wrack my brain for hours, wondering what the “one thing” was. And, shockingly, I could never figure it out, so I am sure there is a former student of mine out there, upset that his feedback was never taken seriously, still holding out for more of that "one thing."
As an administrator, I remember the annual surveys that went out to parents about each of us, and I remember combing through the data and being hit with comments that, sometime, were just mean. After every workshop I give, a survey goes out, and the feedback is a mixture of generic platitudes and cryptic messages.
I want to give everyone who has ever given me feedback the benefit of the doubt. I think they are good people who mean well. And, do they truly care about me and helping me grow? And, are they familiar with me? And are the credible with the relevant expertise to be weighing in on these topics?
Or, are they just trying to quickly complete the survey in order to get to lunch? Or did they even understand the question? Or are they actually reflecting more on their own challenges and where they are than anything that has to do with me?
And how does this differ from the people listed on that one-inch square?
Another distinction Grant makes is the difference between feedback and advice. He shares, “Instead of seeking feedback, you’re better off asking for advice. Feedback tends to focus on how well you did last time. Advice shifts attention to how you can do better next time.”
While this seems so simple, it’s really rather profound. If the goal of any of any of this is to grow and be better, of course we should be shifting attention to the future. Even if I did know what that "one thing" was, it wouldn't do me any good to think about when we'd done it before and how it had made anything better. More powerful would be to seek advice on how to incorporate that "one thing" into the future in new and dynamic ways.
As you consider what a shift from accepting to feedback to soliciting advice might look like for you, here are some additional questions to consider:
How do you know someone truly cares?
Why is it important for someone to care in order to be able to truly help you grow?
What does familiar look like to you?
What does someone need to know to be familiar with you? With the situation?
What does credibility look like to you?
How does “credibility” shift from situation to situation – or does it?
Who, in your life, is at the center of these three, and how can you maximize those relationships?
And for whom are we at the middle of this Venn diagram, and how do we work to create a safe space for them to seek our advice and foster their growth?
I still hate anonymous feedback. And I am so fortunate to have names on that one-inch square – people who are familiar and credible and, most importantly, care – to whom I can go for advice. Maybe I should ask them what that "one thing" is.