The Issue of Unnamed Sources

I cannot count the number of times I have heard people complain about the anonymity of the internet. It goes something like this:

“People can write whatever they want, almost libeling people by spreading rumors or biased opinions, without any accountability. They do not have to sign their names, and so there is no way to question, debate, or more fully understand what they say. I’ll  bet it would be different if they had to attach their names.”

I know the feeling. A few years back, I wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper. It was only an opinion and appeared on the opinion page, with my name and community included. About a week later, I received a plain envelop in the mail addressed to me with no return address. Inside was a copy of my printed opinion, with some colorful commentary about my upbringing, my IQ, and the horse I rode in on, if you catch my drift. This person took the time to look up my address, write the comments, and drop the note in the mail. It really would not have taken much more effort to sign a name and leave an email address.

Today, there is a lot of noise about how this practice is moving into news reporting. I have heard people of all political persuasions musing about whether there will ever be another story, where the source has a name other than anonymous. That indicates to me that the frequently of unnamed sources must be growing, since it has become noticeable.

Leaders are willing to stand up for and own their beliefs and opinions. They find that kind of transparency can actually be helpful in building trust. And realize that people do not have to agree on everything to still have trust in each other.

It is my hope that more and more people will be courageous and accountable enough to own their statements and viewpoints, and won’t settle for being an unnamed source.

In the workplace, unnamed sources can be a convenient and easy way to wimp out of providing tough performance or development feedback. Boss to direct report: “A couple of people around here told me that you are disruptive in meetings with other departments.” Amazing how often I have heard about people going to the boss to complain about a peer, without ever telling the peer. And then the boss passes along the feedback without mentioning names, in order to prevent more friction in the team. The person receiving the feedback will likely respond with, “who told you that?” Or, the direct report will wonder if the boss really did hear that comment, or is simply using unnamed others as an excuse to make a point, while still trying to look like a friend. Either way, the belief in the validity of the message will be reduced, and there will still be friction in the team.

As a leader, don’t fall into this trap. Encourage peers to more directly provide feedback to one other. If they are hesitant (few enjoy these kinds of confrontations), you can mediate by calling all parties together to openly discuss. One way or the other, you are eliminating the “mysterious voice” that is heard but never seen. And of course, you can be the role model for tough conversations by having them with your own peers.

There is one other way to reduce the unnamed source issue at work. When you are asked to complete an assessment on someone, sign your name to your written comments. Let people know your thoughts and observations about them. If you were the recipient of the feedback, wouldn’t you prefer to know who is saying what, rather than guessing? Most survey feedback is set up to be confidential, based on the belief that people will never provide honest feedback unless it is masked. If others want to remain anonymous, great. However, you can provide even richer feedback to the recipient by simply adding your name to your comments. Try it.

A last point for you to think about is this. If you want people to own up to their beliefs, words and actions in the workplace, then you have to clarify that expectation. And, you have to acknowledge people when they do it, vs. punishing them. Sadly, I still read too many accounts of well-intentioned people taking a visible, accountable stand in blowing the whistle on something wrong, and then being shunned (or worse) for their noble actions. If you preach that you want people to call out quality problems, and then reprimand them for delaying the order, you are a problem, not a leader. If you want an environment of openness and transparency, you have to work at making it safe and admired to be that way. When there seems to be a lot going on in the shadows of anonymity, you likely have some real trust building to do.

Take care and let your voice be heard.


  1. Steve –

    Good thoughts to noodle upon. After watching Comey speak at the Congressional hearing and admitting he leaked information – and in my opinion for a good reason, my opinion on him and of his character went up. He stood his ground and spoke inconvenient truth to power. We need more people to have the backbone and stand to lead.

    As my father constantly reminded me, “He who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”

    Carrpe Diem!


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