Developing an Anonymous Criticism Policy

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 personal?

If I’m getting a policy on handling anonymous criticism, what should I do differently than what I currently do?

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Ron Edmondson

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  • ronedmondson says:

    That's good. I agree Dan. Thanks as always!

  • Dan Rockwell says:

    Ron,

    Just a quick note. I think all critiques and criticism needs to be filtered through values, mission and vision.

    In addition, all critiques that we listen to should be clearly committed to the advancement of the organization and the enhancement of it's leaders. If either is missing, forget it.

    I guess that puts anonymous critiques in file 13, for the most part. 🙂

    Just a thought off the top of my head,

    Dan

  • Mike says:

    I listen to the remarks – I often find that even with my "enemies" there is often some truth I can dig out of the feedback that is useful…I use it to try to ask the tough questions about myself like my leadership style and my approachability (like you have said above).

    But anonymous remarks are way down on the priority list, and may not get any attention if it is a particularly busy time.

    Finally, I think we are there to help each other out, not point out each others flaws. We are to lift each other up in words and deeds. It is hard to lift someone up if you are not there.

  • thegreatfish says:

    I am not a leader, but I used to be a church secretary.

    I think that pastors and leaders are people, not super-humans. When you are leading a large group, the criticism grows, and it is hard to take it. Does God expect you to take constant exposure to anonymous criticism? I don't think so.

    As a support person, I would suggest having an appointed person dilute/refine it for you. The purpose would be to have them take the sting out of it, i.e. hurtful personal comments or attacks on your family or staff. You could train this person to look it over, decide if there is anything in it that you actually need to be made aware of, record reasonable suggestions, keep statistics of constant issues and discard the rest.

    It would be more difficult with anonymous email, rather than paper, but you could discipline yourself to forward it to this person. The advantage to this is that you would not be spending time meditating on all of the negativity that can drain the life and confidence out of a senior pastor, and yet you would still be aware when you may need to make a course correction or something like that. Just an idea.

  • dmbaldwin says:

    Very timely post Ron. We just made a decision on this. We do not read anonymous comments — positive or negative — that are submitted or sent in. It's a form of one-way conversation, and we are all about dialog. You can't do that if you don't know who to talk to.
    Thanks,
    Dave

    • Interesting. Thanks for the input. I don’t know if I could do an organizational policy unless everyone agreed with it. Unless of course the criticism was to the organization and not an individual.

  • patriciazell says:

    Okay, the first thing that I do with criticism (anonymous or not) is to go to God and ask Him for help to sort things out. None of us is perfect and I think we need to exercise grace and mercy from all sides. God can give us the knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to work through the circumstances and through our feelings. I never face criticism by myself and I remind myself that God loves the criticiser just as much as He loves me. I ask Him to work everything out for everyone's good.

    • Good reminder. I think it’s most wise to carry things that are difficult or hard to understand to God before deciding. He’s certainly given us wisdom and experience but in the end “apart from Him I can do nothing”. Thanks

  • Anonymous says:

    Thought I'd be an anonymous critic 🙂 … Nice post and I couldn't agree more

  • Jon says:

    Think that it's a two-sided coin though. On the one hand, if the person who wants your attention doesn't have the stuff to sign his name, then I could see where you could look at it as less than a genuine complaint. The flip side of that is how are you as a leader.? Does the person have a valid concern that if he signs his name, that there will be negative ramifications.?

    I feel pretty open with my boss to speak my mind. Sometimes I'm wrong, but other times he sees the validity of my concern and I always think I get a reasonable hearing and don't feel threatened that it will come back to bite me. However, if I had some major complaint about the organization that I felt would stir negative feelings at the highest levels, even if the criticism were totally valid, I believe that I would fall back on the anonymous note. Even though we've been told that we can say anything and it won't reflect badly back on us, I don't have full faith in that statement.

  • Joyce says:

    Discard without consideration. Do you really want to be influenced by a coward?

    • ronedmondson says:

      That's a very interesting question. Thanks. Makes me think.

      • Joyce says:

        Rethinking my terse remark. Some people are intimidated and/or insecure and have adopted unhealthy coping mechanisms like sending anonymous letters. "Hiding" behind anonymity quite often indicates a person is not living a life of open transparency before the Lord, or in many cases is harboring sin they either have not yet recognized or do not want to have exposed, so these letters provide us with opportunity to pray for them.

        I asked the lead pastor of a large congregation how he handled complaints. His approach was 3 step:
        1. He would read the complaint and ask himself "Is this true?"
        2. If it isn't true, he would ask, "Have I done something to make it appear true?" If yes, "Do I need to make amends or change something about my life/conduct?"
        3. If his conscience was clear in the matter, he would ask himself, "What might be happening in the life of the complainant to make them think this way?"

        With anonymous complaints, of course, it's not possible to know the answer to #3, however, we can pray for the writer and lay the complaints humbly before the Lord in the confidence of our security in Christ, praying the words of Psalm 139:23-24… Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

        Thanks for your time and allowing me to express these thoughts.

  • @michaelfast says:

    I was taught by my seminary professors to throw anonymous letters straight into the garbage can.

    Easier said than done.

    After going through a period in our church where anonymous letters were circulated I wrote a blog post about the whole thing. Take a look if you like at:
    http://thefasts.blogspot.com/2009/10/why-anonymou

    mike

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