MeetingSphere provides and advocates anonymity in meetings. Nothing is more effective in enabling full disclosure and minimizing personal prejudice.
Again, and again this advocacy meets with a ‘yes, but’ objection citing organizational culture, as in “Yes, we can see that anonymity may be useful, but we here have an open culture; nobody needs to be afraid to speak their mind.”
This cultural objection misses the issue.
Anonymity is about people in meetings - not culture
While an open culture is undoubtedly a good thing, this ‘cultural objection’ against the use of anonymity misses the mark on several accounts.
First, fear of retribution by the hierarchy is not the only and almost certainly not the most important factor which prevents people from speaking out in meetings. Loyalties, favors owed, fear of ridicule and plain introversion can have the same effect.
Third, meetings are very different from regular conversations we have with our colleagues. The behavior and strategies which work well in a conversation, such as inferring much of what is left unsaid from knowing our colleague well, a confirmative look in the eye, body language and a nod that confirms that our message has landed, all fail with 5 or more people in the 'room'.
Which is why, regardless of their organizations culture, most people feel that they somehow underperform in traditional meetings. It is also why, regardless of their broader benefits, cultural change programs have largely failed to improve meetings.
Above all else, meetings are social occasions. The situation is less clear cut and the stakes are significantly higher than in a 'normal' conversation between colleagues. We can shine in front of a lot of people, but we can also make fools of ourselves. The latter is quite possible, since we are not totally certain about most things and it is quite likely that some participants may know more than we do. The stakes rise with the number of people involved and things already get complicated with as few as five people around the table. It becomes almost impossible to judge by non-verbal clues if they have ‘got’ our point, understood what we mean. In online meetings, only the foolhardy imagine they have a chance to ‘read’ the group. So, better rephrase our point again, just to be sure. Add a few caveats? After all, it may not be our turn to speak again before things have moved on.
In an inherently risky situation, such as a meeting, some by their nature feel compelled to go for glory and play to the gallery. Others will overcome their reservations, take the risk and say what they think, because of a sense of duty or because they have a stake in the outcome. Most will play it safe. Say something unobjectionable. Avoid criticism as not to be criticized. If they must say something, why not simply agree with the statement our colleague just made? Regrettably, if understandably, many experts, researchers and engineers - people who know things - fall into this last category.
In meetings, social outcomes routinely trump objective outcomes. This comes at a considerable price not just for the organization. Most participants, despite giving priority to their feeling of self-worth and social status, would very much like to contribute fully, judge things on merit and win as team. If only they could!
Anonymity changes the game
Anonymity changes the game by eliminating the social element for as long as it takes to have that open group conversation, to be at our best and get to the results we know we can produce.
As explained elsewhere, MeetingSphere lets participants contribute when they have something to say or ask, instead of waiting their turn. Anonymity is about the quality of such contributions and the willingness to volunteer them, as in: “If they think the idea stupid (or otherwise objectionable), they won’t know it was me.”
Just as importantly, anonymity is about letting participants judge what is ‘said’ on its merits: If people don’t know who it’s from, they cannot close their ears and mind the moment that wrong person draws breath. They cannot and therefore need not waste time and attention on guessing the speaker’s motivation and hidden agenda. Instead, they can focus on what is actually being said.
Speaking out and getting a fair hearing for what you say are both essential for a discussion to go anywhere. Both are mutually reinforcing:
If what I say will get a fair hearing, it is worth my effort to share and make myself understood
If I am free to support or challenge an idea (or concept, fact, suggestion, opinion, question), it is probably worth my trying to understand it
The fundamental upshot is relevance: Relevant facts (opinions, etc.) get shared and are discussed by relevant criteria, not who said it. This saves time, drives engagement and delivers results.
While less important than it would be when speaking in turn, it should be mentioned that anonymity also takes care of several other eternal irritants of meetings, i.e. the
Narcissists: only they can hear themselves talking
Dominators: they also must resort to the merit of their argument
Repeaters: echoing other people’s opinions just to say something becomes pointless
Won't anonymity encourage trolling?
With anonymity, cheap shots targeting individuals are extremely rare. Attacks on a person in order to discredit a position or statement simply won’t work if the link between contribution and contributor does not exist. For the same reason, there is no point in rubbishing a contribution just to get at the contributor.
Groups ‘get’ this immediately. Perhaps surprisingly, groups who have internal conflict and are at odds with each other benefit most obviously. They welcome the chance to step outside what has become a toxic social dance and achieve something worthwhile together. After all, most people enjoy getting beyond their grudges and following their better instincts.
Fortunately, technically enforced anonymity is available on demand. It becomes even more powerful over time as trust in the new meeting paradigm becomes complete. Very quickly, anonymity, and, indeed, the use of MeetingSphere, are understood to signal “this is now about the subject at hand and what you really think about it”.
Will MeetingSphere change our culture?
Probably, but not that much. Meeting participants will – for good or bad – return to their usual behavior once anonymity has been turned off again. Albeit with one big difference: The facts and opinions are now on the table as are counter arguments and questions, some of which may still wait for an answer.
These ideas, facts, arguments and open questions can now be dealt with. Even better, even people not in the meeting can trust that everything could be said, and all questions asked. This tends to increase the general level of trust in an organization.
The need for verification
The price for people saying what they think and keeping an open mind is not knowing who said it. This price is almost always well worth paying but it means that we cannot judge the trustworthiness of the information by the reputation and ‘standing’ of its contributor.
Fortunately, there are other ways of verification.
Verification by the group. The Rating workspace allows for the quick assessment of many items on one or several criteria such as “Is the case”, “Importance” or “Urgency” or “Effectiveness”. A simple rating instruction such as “Rate items by importance. Remember that things which are not true cannot be important” identifies within minutes what the participants believe to be fact AND important.
Verification by someone you trust. Once anonymity has done its job of flushing out what is relevant you can return to more traditional ways of communication. Simply ask your most trusted source something like, “Julie, what do you make of this? Can we make our decision on this basis?” This can be in the meeting or after, ideally in a conversation with no more than 3 participants where Julie can be candid, and answers can be followed up with further questions. For such a conversation, Julie need not even have attended the meeting. The automatic verbatim meeting report will put all the information before her.