Some internal communicators would claim that the rapid adoption of new digital channels and platforms during the pandemic has enabled them to usher in a new transparency and authenticity in how leaders communicate with employees. But has it, really? The rise of the anonymous question in these online encounters has implications for ethical internal communications practice and consequences for organisational cultures everywhere.
It’s been nearly a year now. A year that saw the digital revolution, which was already happening in internal communication practice, become suddenly turbocharged by the pandemic.
As workforces were abruptly scattered by social distancing, many of us implemented new digital communication tools and platforms at pace, with little time to think about the implications of how they would impact on our channel strategies, organisational cultures, employee wellbeing and engagement. We needed continuity in communication with workforces, and nothing else mattered, as the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold.
Many would claim that we’ve successfully mastered these new channels, and ushered in a new transparency and authenticity in how leaders communicate with employees and vice versa. That the realised potential of real-time one to many, offered by the likes of Zoom and Teams, has created a closer connection between the two groups which could never have been achieved with the stage management and theatrics of the ‘old world’ Town Hall event.
But has it, really?
There is also something else which seems to be happening because of the increased use of digital channels, which I think has the potential to undermine this connection, destroy trust and damage healthy organisational cultures.
The rise of the anonymous question.
I recently ran a poll on Twitter and asked other internal communicators if they allowed employees to ask leaders questions anonymously in online Q&A events. Thanks to everyone who voted in the poll and who commented. It seems that over three quarters us do allow anonymous questions in these interactions with leaders.
A practical matter
Judging by some of the comments, allowing this to happen seems mainly to be a matter of practicality. For example, making sure that employees are able to ask the questions they want, without fear or inhibition, particularly in a change situation. It also seemingly enables ‘stock questions’ to be introduced by internal communicators to pose the questions we think employees should be asking, or to simply make sure that the questions and the conversation don’t dry up prematurely.
Now, I understand that the practicalities and smooth running of these Q&A events are important. After all, none of us wants to make a mess of running them or cause embarrassment when leaders are present. But, if the majority of questions asked in them end up being posed anonymously is that really an authentic and transparent conversation between employees and leaders?
Somehow, that doesn’t feel right to me. Rather than taking the easy option, using the get out clause of ‘practicality’ or because anonymity is baked into the platform as a function, internal communicators should instead be encouraging employees to put their names to their questions.
Surely that’s the best way to build trust amongst a remote workforce, and a healthy organisational culture, founded on openness and transparency. A culture fit for the next normal as a new order emerges in the wake of the pandemic.
A question of ethics
As well as considering the practicalities of running online Q&A events, we should also be mindful of some ethical issues which are raised by an increased prevalence of anonymous questions.
The role of the internal communicator in organisations is a balancing act. We often find ourselves caught in the middle between the demands of leaders and the needs of employees. There is a balance to be stuck to be fair to both, and it is often down to us to find that balance and compromise.
One of our ethical responsibilities is to enable employees to be heard, and to encourage leaders to listen to them and challenge them when they don’t. We need to create the right communication environment for that to happen. In this context, the anonymous question seems to justifiably have its place to enable employees to speak without fear of retribution.
However, we should also consider what a ubiquity of anonymous questions says about the state of trust inside our organisations and if we are tolerating, and even encourage them, at a risk of damaging the organisational culture? The very culture that makes the workplace an engaging and positive experience for employees. A culture that welcomes constructive challenge and cross examination of leadership decisions.
Internal communicators also have a significant amount of influence to shape the narrative inside organisations, and we should wield that power with care. We may think that we are innocently curating content by planting questions in the guise of the anonymous questioner, but by introducing our biases we could instead be creating a narrative that is at odds with the daily experience of employees and suppressing the expression of what really matters to them.
We also need to be fair to leaders, and manufacturing questions and overly stage-managing online Q&A encounters, has the potential to corrupt the leadership teams’ understanding of how employees are currently feeling, and what they are thinking about?
Many of us are now more skilled in the use of digital communication tools and platforms, and they currently dominate our daily experience of communicating and the channel mix. However, we should not be complacent in how we use them and fall into bad habits. We are still very much in a transition, which is reshaping how we practice internal communication.
This means, not only thinking about the practicalities of how we run online Q&A events but also the wider implications for employees, leaders and the organisational culture.
The anonymous question has consequences.