The Peril of Anonymous Feedback

Greenboard with "Feedback, Like it, Don't like it" in chalk

Communication of any kind is a tricky thing for us humans. Even if we speak the same language we are lucky if our words are met with the same understanding as our intended meaning. Add on top of that our discomfort with giving and receiving feedback, and we can being moving into scary territory.

But, our Unitarian Universalist values and theology ask us to do just that. It is up to us to have courage and lean in to the discomfort so that we can help to create a more just and loving community. Our core liberal religious values--based in a theology of love and grace--call us into covenantal relationships that are mutual, consensual, and without coercion.

The Attraction of Anonymous Feedback

Feedback and concerns are best shared directly to avoid triangulation or pass-through communication--situations where communication is not mutual and all parties take responsibility for their words.

The desire to give feedback anonymously can be attractive. Some people fear retribution or loss of face or power if they have to “own” their comments. Being anonymous allows their ideas to be shared in ways that can impact the system with little or no risk to themselves or their relationships in the congregation.

Sometimes, people use anonymous feedback so they can hide their true intentions--by starting a form of “rumor” so they can hide from the consequences of their actions. Thankfully, this use of devious means to get one’s ends met can be reduced by emphasis on what covenant calls from us--trusting to have the hard conversations with each other and moving into brave spaces.

And yet, there can be cultural differences. For example, in some cultures, approaching another person directly is disrespectful. Although this isn’t necessarily triangulation or pass-through communication, it’s not anonymous if the person is taking responsibility for their words. There are many complexities to consider when we encounter differences of any kind, so leaders must be mindful of potential cultural differences and to check their own assumptions and biases.

Power Differences

In order to keep mutuality at our center we must be aware of potential power imbalances in our communities.

There may be a power differential between the parties, and the party with less power (newer person, younger person, person from a historically marginalized community, person with a disability, volunteer) may have legitimate concerns and fear of reprisal from a party with more power (matriarch/patriarch, elder, person with “higher” social privilege, able-bodied person, staff/minister). There can also be a fear of being shunned by the rest of the community when the culture of the community makes someone feel like an outsider who “doesn’t really belong.”

Sometimes there is a perception of power that may not be felt by all parties involved. Many people who represent the dominant culture may not understand the power that they have compared to others (e.g. being noticed, listened to, not interrupted, or having their ideas given more weight). People in marginalized groups often see such power very clearly.

Power differences also show up in staff teams, but that is a separate topic.

Covenant and Trust

If members are reluctant to talk to one another directly, then you are probably observing lack of trust. Part of being in covenant is to speak (and hear) each other’s truths in love, and to help one another be accountable to being in covenant. Without a basic level of trust among members of the congregation, bad communication habits (triangulation and pass-through communication) can start to appear. It is important for congregations to focus on ongoing trust-building.

In our congregations, we have opportunities to practice counter-cultural communication techniques where we can risk speaking truthfully and deeply with each other.

Triangulation and Pass-Through Communication

Triangulation is when the first person vents to a second person about their concern or irritation with a third person, and expects them to do something about it. If the first and third person never talk directly, the issue will never be resolved between them.

Instead, the second person should tell the first person to discuss their concerns directly with the third person. If that is too uncomfortable, the second person could accompany the first person for the conversation. If that still feels unsafe, some sort of restorative practice (e.g. Peace Circles, Conflict Circles) may be needed.

It is human nature to talk with a second person to get help in how to approach a third person--we all need mentoring in the best way to approach issues. We can’t, though, expect the second person to take this up on the first person’s behalf without their participation. That creates distrust in the community, and interferes with a congregation’s covenantal way of being.

Pass-Through Communication is the habit of asking one person to share a piece of information with another person, rather than sharing it directly. (This often happens to partners and spouses.) Like the childhood game of “telephone,” messages often lose their original nuance and meaning. If a congregation has this habit, it is easier for individuals or groups to spread rumors, gossip or other misinformation and cause conflict than for individuals to speak directly to one another.

At the same time, in some cultures, this is a common practice as a way to help save face or reputations in difficult situations. It’s important to balance out these competing values with sensitivity: Be open and honest with each other, while working hard to preserve the relationship. All parties might need to stretch and risk “brave space” where they can listen deeply and hear each other, while striving to honor the mutuality of the relationship.

Unsolicited Anonymous Feedback

Boards, Committees on Ministry, and Personnel committees, and other groups should have clear policies and practices that they will neither receive nor take seriously anonymous complaints—letters, messages, emails, or third-person communication. When concerns and complaints are anonymous, there is no way to check out if you’re understanding the concern correctly, and no opportunity to try to mend a relationship that might be under stress. There is no possibility of a resolution or restoration.

This is especially true if the content includes slander of the minister, staff, or other leaders. Unless there is a serious threat that requires calling the police or a lawyer, the recipient should not disseminate the message(s). One exception to this is when someone realizes they have the same concern, and they can bring it in their own name. At those times, it’s not appropriate to say “and others agree with me” which would be violating the spirit of a covenantal approach.

If someone is sending anonymous emails, letters, or texts to members or staff, a trusted leader should ask everyone to block the anonymous sender and to ignore the content. This would be a good time to reiterate what is considered healthy communication in general as a whole congregation effort.

From Ryn Nasser at the Alban Institute:

Anonymous communication is damaging to everyone in the congregation because feelings are often expressed but cannot be resolved. Wounds are named but cannot be healed. Criticism is offered without the chance to explore the possibility of healing. To stop anonymous feedback, clergy and lay leaders need to agree that it is counterproductive. You can’t apologize to anonymous. Anonymous will remain angry or sad until he or she comes forward with the truth. Anonymous others cannot and should not be considered when making leadership decisions or resolving conflicts.

Solicited Confidential Feedback

There may be times, especially when uncovering staff misconduct or identifying and dismantling systems of oppression, when congregational leaders may want to solicit constructive confidential feedback to name the misconduct or uncover institutional systems of oppression as experienced by those in the congregation who don’t identify with the dominant culture. (Read this article with examples from Christian communities.)

Those who are experiencing harm or marginalization then may be more likely to share their experiences if they are able to have their identities held in confidence, at least initially.
Note: The harmed person(s) or marginalized group needs to guide this process.

One way to do this is to have a person trusted by the harmed persons or marginalized group gather individuals of that group together, or speak with them individually. In cases of severe distrust, this person may need to be someone from outside the congregation. If trust has been established within the group, they can then discuss freely, vent feelings, while the trusted person compiles constructive feedback for the congregation’s leadership. This person can serve as the group’s advocate.

Through this process, the person has the context and the names, and can return to that individual or group when it might be helpful to enter into a more direct conversation or reconciliation process, after change is made, or when the leadership proposes a plan forward.

This way of gathering feedback results in healthier outcomes than approaches such as an anonymous congregational survey that allows anyone, marginalized or not, to insert a poisonous jab and that prevents leadership from engaging with those who gave the feedback. It also prevents groups or individuals to misuse power that can result from others supporting the victim(s) of a situation.

Solicited confidential feedback should always be in service to creating opportunities for more open communications and reconciliation processes going forward.

It’s Complicated

There is no perfect process. A team of your Congregational Life staff has outlined many of the pitfalls that we have seen undermine covenant and damage congregations. We emphasize that direct communication without anonymity is healthy and a covenantal way of being in relationship. Please reach out to your Regional Staff when you are faced with any of these situations.

Given the complexities of human relations, there is not one right way to do the important work of giving and receiving feedback. Luckily for us, part of our UU understanding is that “revelation is open and continuous” and we will be learning from each other on this journey of providing honest, helpful and loving feedback while making space for the voices at the margins.