Dealing with Anonymous Critics

August 23rd, 2011

I received some anonymous criticism last week. I’m one of those rare leaders who doesn’t automatically dismiss criticism from someone who doesn’t sign their name. Mostly because I try to consider if something in my personality or approach caused this person to feel the need to remain anonymous. (My StrengthFinder indicates I can tend to be controlling . . . something I have to continually guard against.) This person actually went to the trouble to make up a name and an email address.

I was okay though, because I figured it was from someone who felt the need to remain anonymous. I would love to talk with this person, but I’m trying to reconcile his or her reasoning for withholding a name. While I still don’t believe this is the right option to take in giving criticism, and it doesn’t fit well with my straight-foward personality, I realize everyone is not like me. I believe there are at least four different motivations for a person offering anonymous criticism.

4 Types of Anonymous Critics

Fearful – This is the anonymous critic who is simply afraid of conflict. It’s not that the person doesn’t like you or the organization or that he or she doesn’t have good suggestions for improvement. This anonymous critic simply can’t bring him or herself to reveal his or her identity, because of fear.

Pleaser – This is the anonymous critic who wants everyone to get along, and so doesn’t want to create any problems or tension. He or she thinks you need to know something, but would rather not be the one to tell you. They aren’t afraid of conflict as much as afraid you won’t like them if they tell you what’s on their heart or mind.

Trouble-maker – This is the anonymous critic who is trying to stir up trouble and knows that throwing the anonymous criticism in the loop causes confusion and concern. These people are disrupters and critics I’d rather avoid reading if I could always discern this was the critic’s intent.

Passive – This is the anonymous critic who has low interest in the organization and would prefer not to be bothered any further. He or she doesn’t want to be in the middle of the conflict, but thinks you need to know what he or she has to share.

Obviously, you can’t always know which of these you’re dealing with, but it does help me think through my approach to anonymous criticism. In the criticism I received this week, for example, several things in the email lead me to believe this person is a Pleaser. Because of that, I spent a little more time considering the criticism and how it applies. It doesn’t make me appreciate anonymity anymore. I still give it less credibility than I would have with a name attached. But considering it in this light--and making a judgement call--causes me to assume the intent of the criticism was to benefit and not to harm and keeps me from dismissing it as quickly.

Is a Policy Necessary?

I’m curious what you do with anonymous criticism.  I don’t really have an official policy of how I handle it and I feel I should establish one. I realize that growth in any organization and just being in a position of leadership welcomes critics.  The larger we get, the more criticism I receive.  The debate I’ve always heard, however, is over what to do with anonymous criticism. 

I don’t appreciate critics who won’t sign their name, but since it’s part of leadership, here’s how I currently react:

  • I listen to it (read the letter, email or comment) and if there is a forum to respond, such as with a blog post, I sometimes do.  I try to still respond in love, even though I don’t feel like doing so at times.
  • I try not to figure out who the anonymous commenter is. It’s never helpful when I do.
  • I don’t give it as much weight to the criticism as when I can attach a real person to the criticism.  If you want my full attention, sign your name.
  • I try to figure out if there’s a reason someone felt the need to be anonymous.  Have I controlled the situation too much?  Have I become unapproachable?  Do I stink?  (It’s never bad to consider hard questions about myself.)
  • I dismiss it quicker if I don’t feel it’s valid. Sorry, Mr. Anonymous, but it’s true.  (I’m less likely to dismiss quickly if there’s a real person attached to the criticism.)
  • I try not to be the anonymous critic.  If I don’t like to receive it, why dish it out to others?

I don’t think I have the right answer.  It’s just the one that works for me right now.

How do you respond?

  • Do you read it?
  • Do you ignore it?
  • Do you respond to it?
  • Do you take it personally?
comments powered by Disqus