What Managers Can Gain From Anonymous Chats

When used strategically, anonymous digital chat tools can help build stronger employee engagement.

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Anonymous chat apps are quickly picking up steam in the workplace, providing employees with a platform to discuss concerns and complaints, offer advice, and provide unfiltered feedback in novel ways. These technologies can be helpful to managers — but you wouldn’t think so from much of the press surrounding them.

Blind, one of the most popular of these apps and dubbed “HR’s worst nightmare” by TechCrunch, offers employees the opportunity to provide raw feedback, which is “the antithesis to HR’s utopic vision of a manageable and orderly corporate culture.” The New York Times has looked at the trouble anonymous feedback gives employees and managers, citing expert research that anonymous peer reviews are just as political and subjective as any others.

Contently cofounder Shane Snow announced in January 2018 that his company was ending most anonymous employee feedback, which had opened a platform for snide, nonconstructive remarks that left the team “with little but hurt feelings.”

These are all valid concerns. But as a manager myself, I’ve found that there is a time and place for collecting anonymous feedback from my staff. In fact, doing so can help retain great employees, boost productivity, and build greater engagement.

To be clear, it is important to have a workplace culture based on real, open communication and transparency so employees feel free to share their concerns and ideas by name without fear of reprisal. Far too many companies are failing to build these cultures. In fact, according to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte on digital leadership, “C-level executives often portray their organizations as transparent, open to risk-taking, and having high morale. But as you move down the organizational structure, managers rarely believe it and say that the level of trust is very low.”

It’s clearly important to address this at the manager level. It’s why I meet with every person on my team — not just my direct reports, but with their reports as well, at least once a month. I work to build relationships with them and encourage them to bring me anything that they feel deserves my attention. When they do, I try to help them and follow up, as building trust is crucial for fostering environments where feedback can be shared openly.

Still, I know that, even with this culture in place, there may be things that some employees just aren’t comfortable sharing by name — particularly when it concerns their team or their immediate manager.

For gathering anonymous workplace feedback, I use an employee engagement tool called TINYPulse. At least once a month, I send out this question to my entire team and its reporting chain: On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you with your job?

We generally get about an 80% response rate. And most replies are good news, with people reporting high numbers. But sometimes, an employee responds with a low number. When that happens, I can use the tool to create an anonymous dialogue with that individual. I respond in an authentic, transparent way, writing something like, “Hey, this is Ryan. I’m really sorry to learn that you’re feeling this way. Could you help me understand better, so I can help drive changes for you?”

For example, one employee recently reported being at a 5 on the survey. After I reached out, this person explained that the problem was about feeling unappreciated. So, I asked them to explain a bit more: Does this feeling relate to your manager? To the team in general? Or is this within another team? It led to a longer conversation, as these types of communications almost always do.

About half the time, the person ends up choosing to share his or her identity and gives details that help me address the concern more specifically. I maintain their confidentiality and keep an eye out for the problem — how this person is treated in meetings, for example, or whether their work is being recognized by his or her manager and by the company in general.

Even when people choose not to identify themselves, it’s still helpful for me to learn at least the general nature of what’s making them feel less satisfied. It perks up my eyes and ears, so I become more attuned to that kind of problem festering anywhere in the organization.

So, unlike with chat boards, I’m not creating an open platform for people to make any and all complaints anonymously. It isn’t a tool for people to trash-talk each other or to post nebulous remarks that don’t lead anywhere. Managers can see anonymous results of the survey in aggregate, and anyone can reach out anonymously to anyone else, offering the chance to talk. But any responses are private, one-to-one.

I’ve found that it consistently enhances, rather than diminishes, our culture of open communication. It also sends a message: Our employees are so important to us, we will use every tool we can to help address problems.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of employee satisfaction. Research has shown that higher levels of employee engagement can lead to higher profitability and that “when employees are satisfied, they tend to be more committed to their work and have less absenteeism, which positively influences the quality of the goods they produce and services they deliver.” Anonymous surveys looking at employee satisfaction can also help managers gauge their staff’s willingness to serve as brand ambassadors.

As employees find new ways to use digital tools to share stories, offer advice, or even simply let off steam, it won’t be feasible for employers to avoid anonymous technologies altogether. Instead, managers must look for ways to use them effectively — by making them part of an ecosystem that values relationships, open communication, and employee feedback in all its forms.

Editor’s Note: An adapted version of this article appears in the Winter 2019 print edition.



An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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