Saturday, 23 June 2007

Barriers to sharing 2 - fear of repercussions

I've been thinking about why participants in my online community were discouraged from posting on their shared blog. They felt there may be repercussions if they did so, and they wanted to remain anonymous.

I initially thought the reluctance to post was due to a lack of confidence, but responses show that this is not the case, they were pretty confident with posting, commenting, sharing experience. I've considered their reponses in terms of Nolan's model which indicates that the balance of the elements of trust influence participation, which told me they were only partly participating due to this balance, but fear of repercussions is clearly an issue, which I feel may be due to a large extent to the impact of the organisational culture.

Almost half of the participants responses to the statement "I believe I can say what I want on the blog without repercussions" were negative. They really did think what they said may come back to haunt them. They were also very keen to remain anonymous.

This is a worrying response if online communities are to be effective for learning and knowledge sharing. I started to think of Big Brother (the BOOK, not the god awful reality TV programme) and the impact knowing you are being watched has on behaviour.

The majority of us, when pulled over by the police, will feel guilty, even though we've done nothing wrong. It's a feeling brought on my our perception of the police, that they are in control of us and can punish us for our actions if they so wish.

In terms of participation in an online community, considering the same effects, posting and commenting is open for review, which is great if you are in an environment which encourages learning, reflection, and questioning. If you feel however you are being policed, that's a whole different ball game. It means every time you present yourself through your posts and comments:
  • you have to think about what you do against the culture you work in
  • you are aware you may be questioned or assessed
The fear of "not doing it right" is overriding the desire to learn. Acknowledging that you need help with something is one thing, asking for that help is clearly another.

A post entitled Learning Disabilities on Leonardo Mora's blog, reminded me of what Peter Senge said in The Fifth Discipline, that most managers find collective inquiry inherently threating. I'm not sure this is true, but I do think organisations with a particular culture can find collective inquiry threatening. Leonardo also reminds us of something Chris Argyris noted,
If we feel uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain or ignorant. That very process blocks out any new understanding which might threaten us. The consequence is what Argyris calls “skilled incompetence”– teams full of people who are incredibly proficient at keeping themselves from learning.

The initial fear of repercussion felt by my participants I feel may to a great extent be driven by the perception talking about anything that went wrong, any negative experiences, may be picked up by the media. However, the positive effects of sharing failure can be phenomenal - we can learn so much from mistakes, that not sharing them seems almost criminal.

This fear may also be due to the espoused theory, theory in action element of people's survey responses. They may say they are confident about posting, but the pain of appearing uncertain or ignorant prevents them from actually participating. Without further research I can't say if this really is the case, but I suspect there's some truth in it.

What I can say, is that for whatever reason, wishing to be anonymous and fearing repercussions from writing something online are not condusive to online participation, and that gaining people's confidence by showing that there will not be any repercussons, even when posting as yourself, seems the only way to increase online participation for this group.

Again, it all boils down to trust...and that means it's going to take time...


Christine Martell said...

It has taken years for me to be willing to participate in online forums, and I still only do it occasionally. I watched colleagues blog for over a year before I was willing to do it.

Why? Google. It's the first place I go to when I am checking out a potential employee, client, colleague, business contact. I know my customers do the same. It's about maintaining my personal brand. I'm careful about what I reveal simply because I don't want my questions or comments to be used to assess something about me out of context.

I watched a group of professionals totally discount the quality of a colleague based on the fact that person had asked a question on a discussion board that they thought was stupid. Watching that happen, even though I did say to the group I thought it was unfair to make that judgment, has made me doubly cautious online.

I'd like to say it's safe to make mistakes in any kind of learning, but it's not true. Other people can make unfair assessments, and I can't control that as a facilitator online or in the classroom.

I like that you are raising this issue and thinking about it over time. I would like to feel safer to explore online, and to understand how to help others feel that way too.
Christine Martell

Helen Nicol said...

Thanks for the comment Christine - your experience clearly indicates the problem with opening yourself up to a community online.