By Edgar Cardenas, L. Michelle Bennett, and Michael O’Rourke
Do confidentiality and anonymity have a place in teamwork? What are the risks and how might they be mitigated? Can teams move past the need for confidentiality and anonymity?
It takes time and intentional effort to create an environment within a team that is safe for interpersonal risk-taking (ie., a psychologically safe environment). As a team works to develop a psychologically safe environment, teammates will likely be more and more willing to speak openly about challenges. As part of this work, and in an effort to make certain all team members are comfortable sharing issues and challenges, teams may suggest adopting confidential and/or anonymous communication channels; however, there are significant risks associated with their use in teams. Here we detail some of the common risks and provide a set of design elements for dealing with them.
Teammates who have concerns and are uncomfortable sharing them openly with the full team might choose to communicate confidentially with another person, who may be on the team or outside of the team. This might help the individual with the concern address it to their satisfaction, such as by hearing other perspectives or working to identify a safe strategy for bringing it to the team for discussion.
Potential issues with confidentiality:
- If use of confidential channels becomes a regular approach to addressing challenges, it might be viewed as exclusionary, where particular team members discuss ideas with a small number of others without including the rest of the team.
- Confidentiality can be breached, often with good intent but with troubling consequences for the team. For example, if the confidant shares the information with a third party without permission from the source, it can initiate an unhealthy dynamic known as the “drama triangle” (Karpman 2007). To illustrate: Darren tells Jenn something in confidence and Jenn thinks it’s very important. Darren is hesitant to share the information with Will, for fear of the reaction, so Jenn decides to intervene and talk to Will about Darren’s situation to “help” Darren out and without permission. When Darren learns about it, he is upset with Jenn’s betrayal. Jenn created a drama triangle by doing for Darren what he should do for himself, that is, talking with Will directly about his concern.
If the teammate feels that the confidential route will not resolve the concern to their satisfaction, they may choose to use an anonymous communication channel. While anonymous processes provide maximal protection for the identity of teammates with concerns, teams should be careful with approaches that provide it.
Potential issues with anonymity:
- If a team needs an anonymous channel for raising concerns, that can signal a lack of psychological safety.
- Anonymous channels can open the door to bad behavior, where teammates ‘unleash’ on the team and make everyone feel less psychologically safe.
- Anonymous reporting may not resolve the core concern(s) raised, because it is not possible to have conversations with and learn from the people who raised them.
If teams want to allow anonymous channels, take time, as a team, to develop and agree on norms for sharing input/feedback anonymously and for addressing it. For example, the team can adopt norms emphasizing that submissions be respectful and focused on a problem or concern. In addition, they can develop and agree on how responses will be generated and what reasonable response times are for acknowledging and then answering anonymous comments.
Design elements for addressing confidentiality and anonymity
Trust and psychological safety exist on a continuum, and it is not unusual for teams to start at the lower end of the continuum for both. This can create a conundrum: how does the team make it safe for team members to bring forward concerns, building trust along the way, when they do not yet feel safe doing so?
Psychological safety is dynamic and context dependent, and it can increase and decrease over time based on behaviors from teammates and leadership. Additionally, there may be particular aspects within a collaboration that team members may be very open about and some that they feel unsafe to address. For this reason, while entertaining confidential and anonymous approaches for providing feedback, a team should simultaneously work on identifying what can be done to improve psychological safety.
Design elements for building psychological safety include:
- The team is transparent and explicit with each other that they have not yet attained the level of trust and psychological safety they desire and are working to do so. Hence, everyone is involved and has a voice in developing and implementing the process.
- The team co-creates their own vision of what the ideal levels of trust and psychological safety look like for the team.
- The process the team engages in, together, to outline the steps and agreements they commit to as it pertains to confidentiality and anonymity will help establish more trust and psychological safety.
- The team environment feels safer when people are witnessing each other adhering to the agreed-upon norms.
- It is important to accept that confidentiality and anonymity measures are limited in their ability to resolve issues.
- Lastly, the team can celebrate when they begin noticing that team members are raising concerns directly in real time, instead of using confidential or anonymous channels.
In an accompanying i2Insights contribution, we provide an example of how confidentiality and anonymity can be included in a “collaboration agreement”. We have described collaboration agreements and provided a template in an earlier i2Insights contribution.
What has your experience been with confidentiality and anonymity in teamwork? Are there other issues, limitations, or risks that you would add? Are there other design elements or opportunities that you would suggest? What examples can you share of how confidentiality and anonymity have helped or hindered teamwork?
Karpman, S. B. (2007). The New Drama Triangles. USATAA/ ITAA Conference Lecture, 11 August 2007. (Online): https://karpmandramatriangle.com/pdf/thenewdramatriangles.pdf (PDF 802KB)
Biography: Edgar Cardenas PhD is an Associate Director for the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, USA. His work focuses on developing collaborative capacity for cross-disciplinary teams through structured dialogue and collective creativity approaches for strategic planning.
Biography: L. Michelle Bennett PhD is a senior vice president and lead team science consultant at Roger Schwarz and Associates, LLC, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. Her main areas of interest are creating collaborative cultures, maximizing creativity and innovation within teams and organizations, and guiding teams in developing strategic approaches to their work and their team relationships.
Biography: Michael O’Rourke PhD directs the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI) and is Executive Director of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, USA, where he is Professor of Philosophy and faculty in AgBioResearch. He is a founding member of TDI, which has been funded by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and several US National Science Foundation programs.