Friday, May 30, 2008

I am only human

Image: 'Sunflower' wabberjocky

One of the main concerns that people have about the Internet is security of information, privacy and the effect of online behavior on professional reputation. This issue came up again when I was talking to a group of people taking part in the digital literacy research that I am involved with.

The concerns of a newbie blogger
One of the people who heard me talk about my experiences of blogging was really surprised at how open I was and how keen I was to share my thoughts. It appeared to her that I was not worried what people thought about me. To her, privacy was an issue. She was concerned about the consequences of saying something controversial or insensitive. Could the written word in a blog be used as evidence, especially in a legal case? What would happen if words were taken out of context or misconstrued?

Being honest and open
I have looked at this issue before, particularly in relation to what I write in my ePortfolio about my clinical midwifery practice. I have come to the conclusion that it is important to be transparent because it allows people to see the hows, wheres and whys of my learning.

I have made mistakes. Very recently I became embroiled in a wider flame war and wrote a post about another midwife. It was meant to be a generic comment on how health professionals behave online but reflecting back on it, I think I was out of order in what I wrote and how I said it. I know now that it was very hurtful to the person involved and for that I am deeply sorry. Whilst I cannot mend that hurt, I have taken on board some valuable lessons about the importance of being professional in the way I write this blog and how I comment (or not, as the case should probably be) about other people's behaviour. If I have any doubts about what I am about to post, I will ask for some sort of peer review before I hit the 'publish' button.

I do worry about what other people think, but I also believe in the importance of reflection and the shared learning that comes from reflection in an open environment.

Why should you be open about your mistakes?
Michele Martin has written a number of posts about this including 'Lets get naked', 'With Web 2.0, You Can Run, But You Can't Hide: Tools and Resources for Managing Your Online Reputation' and 'Is An Online Identity Necessary and What Should You Do to Maintain It?'. Michele feels it is important to be seen as " authentic" and to "present yourself as a multi-faceted human with strengths and weaknesses". Whilst it is probably not a good idea to be blogging about how drunk you got at the weekend, admitting to one's mistakes allows you to control what is said and how the message is put out. That degree of open honesty requires you to be truthful with yourself first, which Michele maintains helps one's own personal learning as well as contributes to the learning of others.

Does admitting to your mistakes damage your professional reputation?
Michele doesn't believe this is the case. Open discussion allows people to contribute to your learning by sharing advice, support and ideas. People are more likely to honour your honesty and come to like you because they see you as 'human' with human frailties.

This was highlighted by Nancy White, who is an extremely well known consultant who works as a facilitator of groups. Nancy admitted on her blog that she had made a mistake in one of her sessions. She blogged about it, reflected on what she did and recounted the lessons she learned from the incident. That was an amazing 'risk' for someone of Nancy's standing to take but if the responses to that post were anything to go by, people really appreciated her honesty, learned from it and value her work even more. I certainly feel I know her a lot better and feel a connection with her that was not there before.

Being a reflective practitioner
Being totally honest about clinical mistakes which may include life and death issues is problematic for health professionals. How I can talk about my clinical practice in an open environment in a way that keeps me safe as a professional, yet aids both my learning and that of my colleagues is something I still have not quite worked out. But, going back to the comments made by the newbie blogger, I do believe it is important to think about what you say and how you say it. I would not publish personal details of midwifery clients that I have looked after. And I have made a personal decision not to publish birth stories other than my own. But for me to be a reflective practitioner, it is equally as important to be able to talk about my mistakes as it is to talk about my successes.

How do you feel about this? How would you feel about talking about your mistakes online? Or do you feel that professionals (whatever profession) put their reputation at risk by doing this?

Image: 'Poppies in the Sunset on Lake Geneva' Pear Biter


Nancy White said...

Sarah, thanks for writing on this issue. I think it is especially important for health care practitioners because of their unique role (and in many countries, liability issues).

I think there are some other bits in the mix:

* the risk may be more for people mid career than those at the start, or who have already developed a reputation. How do we practice transparency when we are in the "risky zone."

* how do we communicate our failings and subsequent learnings in productive ways - how often do people pull out the soundbite they want and discard the rest? I think it places the burden of clear communication on us. Are we ready and willing to do that work?

Sarah Stewart said...

I do think the way we communicate is the key - its not so much what we say but how we say it.

I think I would be far more sympathetic and understanding reading about a clinical mistake by a colleague if it was written in a thoughtful, reflective, 'humble' way. But if it came over as an arrogant rant (everything that went wrong was not my fault), then I am much less likely to take a sympathetic view of what was written. Does that make sense?

As for litigation, I have read and heard a number of times that health consumers do not necessarily sue because they want to make heaps of money, but rather that they want the health practitioner to acknowledge that he/she has made a mistake and has taken steps to make sure that the mistake does not happen again.

As for my online communication, if I have set myself up to be a role model with regards to being a midwife and educator who blogs, then I have to take the time to be really careful about how I communicate. This is one of the main lessons I have learned over the last few weeks. If I don't take that time, then my reputation will suffer.

Nancy White said...

Sarah, you remind me of a great piece of advice I was given. Anything written in anger or strong emotion - wait 24 hours before you post it!

Michele Martin said...

Hi Sarah--I can understand your horror at putting your thoughts online about your colleague only to realize in retrospect that they were far more hurtful than you had intended or imagined. It's the blogging equivalent of "open mouth, insert foot," of which I've been guilty on many occasions. But I also have to say that I took a look at the posts and I don't really see how what you wrote was nearly so problematic as it was made out to be. I admit that I might be missing something here, but it seems that others involved in the flame war might have done well to think about what and how they were writing in this process. If anyone was attacked, it was you!

I think that you are taking an appropriately reflective view of your practices--"appropriate" in the sense that I don't see where you are unprofessional in what you reveal or how you discuss what you're learning. I say keep up your version of transparency, Sarah--we need more professionals like you!

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you both, Nancy and Michele for your support.