Feedback, anonymity, and self awareness

Did I ever tell you about the time a manager pulled me into a conference room and told me I had a week to finish the project I was working on or I'd be fired?

When that effort started I was on a team of three. The other two were almost immediately allocated to other work, leaving me alone. I approached the manager and said "I will not be able to hit this deadline by myself unless I work super, super hard, and even then the chances are very low." His response?

I want you to wreck yourself to meet this deadline.

This may have introduced some emotional baggage that I still carry around.


Fast forward a non-trivial amount of time and I'm leading projects.

There are types of people who inherently distrust anyone in a position of authority, even in a role as benign as (what I consider) a lead. 25-year-old me was one of them, given the types of companies I've worked at.

So I open the door for anonymity. Do you, as a team member, see some dysfunction on the team but are for any reason hesitant to bring it up? Did I do or say something that offended you or shut you down? Is our company or client inhibiting your ability to Get Work Done? By all means, cut out newspaper headlines and make yourself an anonymous ransom-note-style missive and deliver it by carrier pigeon.

I don't care how - I want your feedback.


But alas, it is never so simple.

Anonymous channels are one-way transmissions: a lonely soul on an island stuffing a rolled up scrap of paper into a bottle and hoping its meager message is well crafted enough to deliver an unambiguous quantum of actionable feedback. There's no second chance, no going back for clarification. If the transmission is garbled it may as well be thrown away. Worse, it might be misinterpreted and the wrong action taken.

Further, what if the feedback is delivered by human proxy? Then you have to contend with the proxy's context, bias, and interpretation. I have difficulty enough pulling real issues out of people during direct, blunt feedback sessions; doing so through another person and correcting for their lens is nearly impossible.


I had a brief twitter exchange with a few professionals on the subject of anonymity in feedback. One person stated

Any time I have received anon feedback, it has eroded trust - Why didn't they just tell me themselves? Maybe it was just a misunderstanding?

Does that happen to me as well? It didn't take much introspection to discover that, yes, I do feel slighted when I receive feedback anonymously, even though I'm the one who established the norm. When I get such feedback I immediately wonder what I have done to make the environment so unsafe.

This person doesn't feel comfortable giving me this feedback, but they feel it's important enough to risk transmitting through noisy, lossy channels. What a missed opportunity!

So here we come to the self-awareness: my experiences have made me biased toward accepting anonymity as a valid feedback channel. And now I have to consider whether my acceptance of anonymity has been a stopgap, a just-comfortable-enough solution that has kept me from doing the Right Thing.

The Right Thing

What if instead of opening up an anonymous channel I doubled down on building personal relationships with each of my teammates? What if I directly solicited feedback and coached each individual on what type of feedback is valuable and good ways of delivering (and receiving)?

I'll be sitting down with more individuals on my team and asking how they find working with the team, with me, with the client. I'll be genuine and inquisitive, because I honestly want their feedback, and I want them to grow as professionals. I want them to know I appreciate them, and them to feel appreciated. I want them to know they matter.

Because they do matter. Software is a team sport, and as a lead my job is to elevate the team and the individuals on it.

And individuals aren't anonymous.