As leadership, Q+A serves several important functions.

The first, obviously, is to answer questions people have.

No matter how well we communicate (and let’s be honest, how well do we really communicate?) there will always be questions that haven’t been addressed. Often there are questions you never even imagined. Q+A is an escape hatch as a leader for not being perfect.

The second is to cultivate a culture of engagement.

People who feel like they can get their questions answered, get their needs met, understand how decisions are being made and impact the direction of their team and company are more engaged, creative, and motivated. And those are the people you want on your team always, but especially if your goal is innovation.

The third is accountability.

As leaders we are also humans (not something folks always remember). We have good days and bad days, good months and bad months. We get tired and want to take shortcuts like anyone else. More importantly, as I’ve said before, management breeds blindspots. It’s the nature of hierarchical relationships that your information flow is biased and becomes more so over time. Having a public venue to be asked hard questions is an important tool for helping you stay accountable and building trust with your team.

Anonymity serves an important function in any group of people.

It allows people with less power to dissent from leadership or from the collective safely.

Anonymous Questions

Where we get into trouble is when anonymous questions give folks a cheap and easy public venue to express dissatisfaction and dissent. As someone who has spent my fair share of time in jail for public dissent I am pro-dissent. But broadcasting anonymous questions creates an asymmetry where it is easier to disrupt communication than to create understanding. You can think of it as a parallel to spam where it is infinitely cheaper to send spam than to fight it and how that means certain venues of communication can’t exist because they have no defenses.

Anonymous questions don’t even have to be answered as many teams use tools or processes that show the questions, and so the act of asking the question is now primarily a message directed at the larger team with the question answerer’s role in the whole exchange being perfunctory.

A Quick Suggestion on Splitting the Difference

All of that was a long preamble for a quick suggestion on how to split the difference.

People need a forum for asking anonymous questions from time to time. They need a forum for asking questions publicly. They don’t have to be the same forum.

Instead for live anonymous questions what I like is:

  • Use a trusted 3rd party tool like Google Forms that allows for anonymous submissions (and not like an engagement survey platform paid for by the company).

  • Give people a time window to submit their questions.

  • Let people know I’ll only be answering the questions that I deem to be in good faith.

Now I’m empowered with the tools to start building trust and clarity by choosing to answer the hard questions that come in. Folks asking questions for the purpose of broadcasting dissent are doing it, in part, because they don’t believe they have other options. (and in part because it’s easy)

If I choose not to answer a question, I can state that publicly, “Hey, I got a question about why this place sucks so much, which lacks specificity for me to be able to address it”, or “Hey, I received questions that touch on topics that are the private information of an individual and I won’t be addressing those.” Or I can just not. It’s a balancing act. When we think about our 3 goals for Q+A choosing which questions to answer, and which questions not to answer requires judgment. But it doesn’t require fast-on-your-feet judgement. Which makes it easier. And if I’m consistently not answering the hard questions that come in, people will know. Because people talk.

Nothing earth shattering here, but having seen teams blow themselves up one too many times on anonymous questions, please take this as my suggestion to split the difference, and take the performative nature out of the question asking and the fast footwork out of the question answering.

(And this was not written in response to any of the lovely questions my team asked me this week, I promise! Like so many of these blog posts I found myself giving the same advice I’d given dozens of times before and thought I’d write it down)