Every leader will get one or more at some point in his or her leadership: the harsh, critical letter that is unsigned and unidentifiable. I recently asked via Twitter how leaders respond when they get the anonymous letter. The responses were fascinating.
First, it was evident that many leaders have received such letters. Second, most leaders and leadership groups view writers of these letters with a fairly negative view. They do not understand why they do not have the courage to criticize with clear identity, regardless of the consequences the writer may think he or she will face.
Overall we heard five common themes on how the leaders respond to anonymous letters. They are listed in order of frequency of response:
- They quickly dispose of the letters. By far the most common response was to get the letter out of sight as quickly as possible. Many leaders simply do not believe an anonymous critic warrants any attention.
- They never see them. A significant number of leaders have assistants who read their mail. They have been instructed to dispose of anonymous letters before the leader sees them. Some give the assistants the latitude to make exceptions if they deem the content really warrants it.
- They ask confidants if any of the criticisms have merit. Only about one-fourth of leaders responding take this path. Some say they will go to their spouses first for insight and perspective.
- They pray for the critic. Though the number was relatively small, some leaders did take this action. “The critic is obviously angry or hurting,” one leader responded. “The least I can do is to pray for that person.”
- They make the criticism public. A relatively small number of leaders will actually send copies of the criticism to a larger body. They then ask the group for any perspective they can offer.
Have you ever received an anonymous critical letter? How have you responded to it? What is your perspective on these five different approaches? What would you do if the critical letter about you was sent to several other people, perhaps people who have authority over you?