27 September 2023

Workplace secrets – a ticking time bomb

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Lisa Earle McLeod* says we all keep secrets, mostly perfectly innocent ones, but when it comes to secrets at work, there is often a perilous path to tread.

New research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analysed more than 13,000 secrets.

The findings revealed that the average person is keeping 13 secrets right now.

Five of them are secrets they’ve never told another living soul.

If that doesn’t pique your curiosity nothing will.

Secrets at work aren’t new, but they’re increasingly difficult to keep (thanks to the all-encompassing digital trail).

From leaked emails to hacked websites, keeping confidential information on lock is almost impossible.

According to the Harvard Business Review, we are moving into an era in which every organisation must expect that secrets will get out.

Of course, not all secrets are created equal.

Some are comical, or even brand-builders, like KFC guarding their secret recipe.

Some are more serious, like fraud or conspiracy.

Illegal acts aside, there are some upsides to secrecy.

Katie Greenaway, of the University of Melbourne notes: “People tell secrets to create a sense of social closeness; we make ourselves vulnerable and increase our social bond.”

This can help you establish yourself as a trusted confidant at work, to your boss and your co-workers.

That said, the primary school motto of “nobody likes a tattle-tale” can also come back to bite you.

Continually keeping secrets can erode the long-term trust of your team and keeping big secrets can cost you your job.

It can be tough to know the difference between being a blabbermouth and safeguarding your reputation.

Here are three best practices to navigate the nuance.

Pretend your boss found out

Say someone on your team was going through a divorce.

They told your boss, and when they shared, they mentioned you already knew, and had known for a couple of months.

Would your boss be mad at you for keeping that secret? Probably not.

What about if your boss found out that someone was leaking sensitive information to a competitor, and you knew about it? Different story.

If you’re unsure whether keeping the secret preserves or erodes your reputation organisationally, mentally walking through a hypothetical ‘uncovering’ can help you get clear.

If you have to lie, lie by omission

Often, my executive coaching clients are privy to information long before their teams are.

Whether it’s a potential merger or a round of voluntary redundancies, carrying the weight of the ‘secret’ can cause them major unrest.

If you’re a senior leader, and you’re close with your team, keeping information from them can make you feel icky (even if it’s for the best).

In these cases, it is irresponsible (or even illegal) to break the confidentiality you’ve agreed to.

If you need to keep a secret temporarily, preserve trust with your team by avoiding direct lies.

Omitting information, or even offering generalities like “it’s a developing situation” or “I’ll be able to share more soon” can fend off feelings of potential betrayal down the line.

If you’re on the receiving end of the (late) information, understand that in most cases, your boss was not gleefully delighting in your unknowingness.

More likely, the emotional heaviness of not being fully transparent was difficult for them to bear.

Read the fine print

Aside from potential legal troubles, disregarding confidentiality agreements can cause you major reputational damage.

Things like non-competes, non-disclosure agreements, and even buried clauses in your on-boarding paperwork, can come back to bite you.

If you’re struggling with what to say (or not say) the answer may already be spelled out for you.

Time to dig up that paperwork.

Over your career, you will both keep and blab secrets — and you won’t always be right.

What’s most important is that you act in a way you can be proud of (or at least, not embarrassed about) when things inevitably come to the surface.

*Lisa Earle McLeod is the leadership expert best known for creating the popular business concept Noble Purpose. She is the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose. She can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared at mcleodandmore.com

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