Writing confidentiality and anonymity into collaboration agreements

By Edgar Cardenas, L. Michelle Bennett, and Michael O’Rourke

1. Edgar Cardenas (biography)
2. L. Michelle Bennett (biography)
3. Michael O’Rourke (biography)

How might teams create norms to scaffold the use of confidentiality and anonymity in team settings? How could a team integrate language about confidentiality and anonymity into their collaboration agreement? How can teams use these approaches and simultaneously build psychological safety and trust?

In an earlier i2Insights contribution, we provided a collaboration agreement template to help teams improve their chances of collaboration success by facilitating dialogue about shared values, norms, and processes of collaboration. This template is designed around three central dimensions of collaborative research: team management, team dynamics, and team communication.

In a companion i2Insights contribution we addressed issues concerning confidentiality and anonymity in teamwork, and in this post we provide an example of one possible approach to integrating language about confidentiality and anonymity into a collaboration agreement—specifically, into the “Team Communication” part of a collaboration agreement built using our template. Integrating clear language into a collaboration agreement makes it explicit that open communication is not always possible, that trust and psychological safety are something the team must purposefully work to create, and that the team has processes in place to support communication in those circumstances. We also want to be explicit that circumstances may warrant reporting (sexual misconduct, bullying, etc.) and that such circumstances are beyond the scope of this document. Existing institutional channels and reporting requirements should be followed in those cases.

Sample Language for a Collaboration Agreement

We encourage and welcome open conversation as a team to make sure we are meeting the needs of every person and using our collective capacity to resolve challenges. However, we do understand that this is not always possible because someone may feel it is not safe to share. In that case, we agree that it’s more important to have the information shared than not shared. In this part of our collaboration agreement, we describe confidential and anonymous options designed to support information sharing when a team member feels it is unsafe to share openly.

  1. Confidential – “A conversation between two or more people that is not shared with anyone else”.
    1. Steps:
      1. Identify someone within or outside the team you trust with your concerns and from whom you would value input.
        1. Ask the person if they are willing to have a confidential conversation.
        2. Talk to or write out your message and share it for feedback. (It’s a good practice to write first and then wait a day to reflect and revise if needed.)
        3. Let the person know how they can help. For example, do you need their perspective? Their help in practicing a difficult conversation? Or their help in learning to do something?
      2. If this conversation creates enough clarity and it is a team issue, it is ideal to take it to the team. Work with the person to explore how to bring the topic back to the team.
      3. If it is an issue with a member of the team, consider whether you are willing to raise it with them directly.
      4. In the end, you may decide the issue requires no further action, or you may decide to pursue anonymous channels (see below).
  1. Anonymous – “A comment(s) made to the team where the author of the comment remains unknown”. We agree that team members can provide feedback in situations where they feel there might be a risk to themselves or others if they share information openly. Because the team cannot ask questions or learn from the person choosing anonymity, it is understood that the issue may not be resolved entirely.
    1. Steps:
      1. If you feel that you can’t share your issue openly or confidentially, then you may wish to use our anonymous channel.
      2. <Specify anonymous channel, eg., an anonymous Qualtrics form, a message box>
      3. Anonymous comments will be received by <team-designated recipient(s)>.
      4. We commit to the following norms for anonymous commentary:
        1. A comment should focus on a specific issue. The comment should be respectful, avoid blame, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Use curiosity, compassion, and commitment (ie. your comment expresses your desire to improve the potential for project/collaboration success by raising the concern) in your messaging.
        2. No submissions containing personal attacks, insults, or racist, misogynist, and other hateful language will be accepted. If this occurs, we will note to the group that a message has come through, that it violates this norm, and that the commenter can resubmit a revised message.
        3. Unless the anonymous message is urgent and must go out immediately, we recommend setting it aside for a day after writing it to reflect and revise if necessary.
      5. As a team, we commit to managing these comments transparently and collectively.
        1. Transparency:
          1. Anonymous comments are shared with the full team.
          2. Exception: a comment will not be shared if it violates established norms around appropriate language (see [2.d.ii] above).
        2. Collectivity:
          1. Those designated to receive anonymous comments will bring them to the full team at the next meeting.
          2. We will discuss the anonymous comments as a full team at that meeting and determine how to respond to them or select a date by when they can respond.
          3. Resolution:
            1. If the comment does not have sufficient information for understanding the matter, we can request additional data. The commenter can choose to provide the information, or not.
            2. Once we feel we have the information necessary to resolve the issue, we will seek consensus on whether the issue can and will be addressed and by when.
            3. If the commenter feels the resolution is insufficient, they can resubmit the concern along with their reservations.
            4. The commenter understands that if they are not willing to engage in conversation with the team, there is only so much the team can do to resolve the issue.
          4. If the comment is directed at an individual and is not team-relevant, it will be handled by the principal investigator in consultation with the individual named in the comment.
            1. Without additional input by the commenter, the issue may not be resolved to their satisfaction.

Are there other approaches you have used to address the paradox of needing a psychologically safe environment to raise issues but not being at that point with a team yet? How have you enabled teammates to share difficult topics while building trust and psychological safety? How have you built confidentiality and/or anonymity into a collaboration agreement or into a communication plan for a team?

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.

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