Episode 2: anonymity + psychological safety —
the keys to candid, reliable feedback
In our second episode, Tim Offor and Aishah Hamzah discuss how anonymity can work for garnering insight online (despite its bad reputation). They also chat about how leaders can use anonymity to their advantage if they're seeking reliable people data to act on. (Read transcript)
EPISODE 2 TRANSCRIPT
Hi, I’m Aishah Hamzah. This is The Pax Podcast, where we talk about very smart and very human tech to help you be a great leader in challenging times.
Today in Episode 2 we’re talking to Tim Offor, the CTO and co-founder of Pax Republic.
Pax has built Platos, a virtual deliberation forum that makes it easy for people to discuss, debate and resolve the big issues that might otherwise divide them.
Hi, Tim, thanks for joining us today.
Hi Aishah, it’s my pleasure.
So let’s start with anonymity. Online anonymity has a bit of a bad reputation. I’m thinking about sites like Reddit where it’s something of a free-for-all and trolling is rampant, as we know.
Why not just stick with people having to use their real names, and own what they’re saying?
I think the best place to start is how we work face-to-face. If I feel safe amongst my peer group, sure, I’ll speak up. If I’m concerned that my boss is in the room, or something I say might be used against me, or I might just say something silly, and I don’t want to be ridiculed, then I’ll be more careful.
So, the beauty of working online is you can have a choice about that. I can choose to show my identity, or I might choose to operate in an anonymous manner.
Sure, anonymity without rules can be the Wild West, but if you have effective moderation, anonymity can be very good at bringing out the quiet voices, the introverted people or less confident people.
So it does have a really important place to play, but only in the right settings.
Now... Anonymity ties in really closely with the concept of psychological safety, which I understand to be the ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’’. I think Amy Edmondson coined that term in the late 90s.
But what does psychological safety look like today, in the virtual setting? Has anything changed?
Yeah, I think a lot’s changed. I touched on moderation earlier but perhaps if I take that a bit further, and if we talk a bit about facilitation - so the role of helping people to share their points of view and participate effectively.
So it’s a really important part of what we do at Pax Republic - supporting people (we call them our Hosts) to be good online facilitators.
So, yes, they have to moderate content and make sure that, you know, they deal with bad language or bad behavior, but just, if not more importantly, they’re also creating the space for people to feel free to speak up safely.
So to feel psychologically safe when participating online I need to feel safe to take some personal risks - so, that might be talking about how I feel about a topic or sharing an unpopular opinion.
And so creating that safe environment means bringing together rules - we have House Rules. Behaviours, making sure that people live by those rules, and taking into account if they don’t, with the ultimate extreme of blocking them from participating for some time.
But then ultimately, technology, and taking all of that and creating a safe whole place, which is something that we’ve worked very hard at.
So: Harness the power of anonymity, foster psychological safety, and somehow do all of that online. If I did that, how would it affect the quality of my insight? Would it be more reliable? Would I be able to trust what I hear back from my people?
That’s a yes - but it’s a qualified yes - qualified because you need more information than just words to get useful insight. You need to know who, or at least what sort of person, is sharing a perspective. But to do that in a way without breaking anonymity.
We’ve seen some bad examples where so-called anonymized data has been used to re-identify people because it wasn’t handled well. And that’s something that we are absolutely on top of at Pax.
So, I need to make sure there's some structure in the underlying data - just words alone aren’t much use. You need to know something demographic, you know, features... maybe age, maybe gender, whatever’s important to understanding the conversation, so you can make sense of what’s being said.
And that way being able to know if an issue only relates to a few participants or if it’s a more systemic issue. To do that, and get the insights from anonymity is incredibly powerful.
Okay, so as an expert then, in stakeholder engagement, what’s your advice for leaders today? What tools are best for the job?
You’re part of the team behind Platos, tell us about that.
The first thing to think about is what’s in the constellation of online communication tools and get the fit right for what you’re trying to do.
Obviously I know my tools best. We’ve positioned Platos in a space that’s both very important to Barbara Sharp and myself as founders - personally - and also, we believe, for society as a whole.
So that space is for deliberation, so, thoughtful discussion - perhaps the antithesis of short chat or Twitter conversations. So clearly if you’re going to talk about lunch venues or share cat videos we’re not intended for that - use Slack, Teams or one of the many other online collaboration tools.
But Platos, we designed for important issues, so, big issues of strategy, workplace wellbeing, or maybe diversity and inclusion, just by way of example. Or for social issues in the community around wellbeing, or important projects - that’s where we shine.
We describe it as BIG TALK, not small talk.
That’s great. Thanks, Tim, for sharing that with our community. We all want to practice inclusive leadership, and it’s clear the right tools are out there to help.
Thanks for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure.
Thanks Aishah, pleasure’s all mine.
Want to hear more? Join us next time, in the same place and on-demand, for Episode 3 of The Pax Podcast.