When I first heard about a website that lets people send anonymous email messages to friends, bosses or co-workers, I thought: Well, there's an idea that's not going to end well.
Fortunately for humanity, it didn't, or at least it hasn't so far. The site – called Leak and located online at http://justleak.it – received so much initial attention that it developed infrastructure problems and had to be temporarily suspended. The creators say the site will return, but I honestly hope it doesn't.
Leak is by no means the first attempt at anonymous forms of online communication. There are messaging apps like Whisper and Secret, and it takes all of a minute to set up a dummy email account.
But the very fact that Leak – with its ease of use and promise of full anonymity – caught fire so swiftly should give bosses and managers pause. It means a large number of workers are eager to critique, criticize or castigate, as long as it doesn't have to be done face to face.
Briefly consider how you would respond to an anonymous email from a co-worker complaining that you talk too much in meetings. Most would go through some form of the following thoughts:
Who the heck wrote this? I bet it was Steve. I HATE STEVE!!
I don't talk too much during meetings. This is ridiculous. Stupid Steve.
I'm deleting this email. And I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how to get back at Steve.
My colleague, Melissa Harris, who brought Leak to my attention, received an email from the service before it crashed. The note read: "I am just hanging out with you because you know a lot of people. That's it. From a friend, anonymously."
Turns out it was a publicity stunt by the company, but before Harris learned that, she had already contacted several people to unravel who the note might be from and, as she wrote in a column, "telling them that if I ever uncovered the message's author, someone would need to bail me out of jail."
It's odd that the technology connecting us globally also has the power to drive us away from direct communication. The entire concept behind Leak runs afoul of my belief that we should be honest with each other in the workplace and embrace open discussions.
I reached out to Maren and Jamie Showkeir, co-authors of the book "Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment," and asked for their thoughts on Leak.
"It's a sad commentary that people saw a need for this kind of service in the first place," Maren said. "The only reason to send something like that is to either hurt or get even – I can't really see any good intention that accompanies sending an anonymous note like that. The feedback you send is going to be lost in the 'who sent it' mystery, and it becomes a huge distraction from what people are there to do."
Jamie agreed: "I think it's a short leap from giving your boss feedback to being able to bully. And that gets you nowhere. Remember why we're here, why we're at work. Once I'm clear about the notion that we're here to serve a greater good, then it becomes important to me to own my point of view and deliver it to you in a way that allows you to hear it."
In other words, be honest. If you have a problem with a co-worker or manager, find the right way to address that problem. (The right way won't have the visceral satisfaction of firing off a snarky email, but it will make things better in the end.)
The Showkeirs offered several suggestions for starting a potentially difficult conversation.
Maren: "If my intention is to solve a problem, then I need to take some time to figure out some very clear, logical, neutral reasons for having the conversation. Once you have the clarified intention and an idea of where you want the conversation to go, it makes it easier to stay on track."
Jamie: "Change the focus of the conversation from, 'Let me tell you what you're doing to screw things up' to 'Let's talk about how the way we work together is creating a problem for the business.' That way there's a mutuality in terms of what you're saying. Here are some things I do that might be difficult for you, and here are some things I see as difficult, and what can we do to fix that."
Owning up to your part in a difficult work relationship is crucial. It keeps the other person from getting defensive.
If the relationship issue is between you and a boss or manager, the conversation can be more intimidating. But again, Maren suggests being open, forthright and willing to admit your shortcomings:
"If it was me I'd say, 'I've really been struggling with some of the aspects of this relationship, and you're my boss so I'm a little uncomfortable saying this, but would you be willing to have this conversation with me?' Keep things neutral and just explain what it is you're seeing, then ask the boss for suggestions."
Both Maren and Jamie said employers should be concerned that websites like Leak are showing up.
"If I was a leader in an organization, I would want to make a conscious effort in my department or business to let people know that if they have a beef, I want to hear it," Jamie said. "That I'm interested in what they have to say and the only way we can resolve these issues is to talk about them. I'd visibly, loudly address these issues as the boss."
That would give people the confidence to speak openly, rather than letting some sneaky website deliver feedback that holds no value at all.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.
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