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Anonymous feedback troubles both employees and managers

Negative, anonymous feedback puts both testers and project managers in a difficult situation. It's hard for testers to act on vague complaints and awkward for managers to provide the necessary clarification. This expert advice may offer a way out.

Thinking about transparency and accountability, how should a tester deal with negative feedback that is relayed by the immediate manager but initially came from another unknown source, such as a team member or another manager?

What a tough question. I would like to deal with this negative, anonymous feedback from two angles -- one for yourself, but the other addressing the manager's reaction, because it is also an awkward scenario for the manager.

Let's start with the worst scenario: Your boss says that Jim complained that you did something to upset him. The details are vague. You don't even know what is wrong. A typical management solution is to separate you, creating a layer between you with an analyst or a supervisor.

That's not the type of position you want to be in.

Ask to meet with the person criticizing you and ask for your manager to moderate.

The layer prevents any kind of relationship between you and the other party. It also introduces translation error. What you hear will be filtered through the supervisor, and what the other party hears will also be filtered, making the situation worse. The real solution is dialogue.

Let's go back to our meeting with the boss and play it a little differently.

Taking criticism

So, you are criticized for something and are bewildered as to why. For example, you point out a bug (isn't that your job?) but do so in the wrong way. You hear back that this shows a lack of social skills and deficiencies in teamwork. The tendency will be for the feedback to be just vague enough that you don't know how to fix it. After all, how does one work on social skills or communication?

Here's how to fix it: Ask to meet with the person criticizing you and ask for your manager to moderate. This idea of confronting your accuser is built into most modern justice systems; you need to hear what you are accused of and get an opportunity to represent yourself. If your boss won't allow that, ask what you should do with vague, anonymous criticism. Ask the boss how he or she will evaluate your performance in light of the criticism, and ask how the manager will know things are better. Try to get to specific, actionable answers.

However, it is possible you won't get an answer. Perhaps someone higher up made the comment to your manager. Trying to get specifics won't go anywhere if the manager is scared and trying to push problems down on you. In that case, I would probably overreact in a positive way, sending daily emails to my boss about what I have changed and asking for feedback. Or, if the anonymous comment is that you lack people skills, you could ask your manager for weekly one-on-one meetings to discuss progress. In those meetings, ask the manager, "How am I doing in this conversation?"

If the boss says you are doing fine and they have no methods for improvement, but you keep getting the negative criticism, then present it to the boss as an engineering problem: "I have anonymous feedback that is vague. I've gone over it with you every week this month for an hour each time, and you have no suggestions for improvement. What should I do?"

Bottom line: If you can't get the critic to engage, try to engage your boss. If that doesn't work, ask to understand the consequences.

If you are the boss

You probably know by now what to do with people who complain: Offer to moderate a conversation. Refuse to play the telephone game. If the person won't confront the accuser, then the problem is not serious. If they will, then you'll get to see both sides of the story and possibly have a chance to let them understand each other. One way to get the two employees talking is to have the whole team participate in a quality circle. This exercise itself could help solve the issue between the two workers, or it could illuminate a real problem between them.

If you leave things unresolved

It's possible, even likely, that anonymous feedback stays anonymous and never gets resolved. In that case, expect it to resurface at some time, like an annual review. Or worse, it might build up as the rumor spreads that you (the employee being complained about) lack people skills.

It is better to fight to find out the source of the rumor, or you may find that it ends up fighting you.

Next Steps

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Have you or one of your employees ever received anonymous feedback? How did you handle it?