Friday, September 18, 2009

the limits of secrecy

I don't quite understand the need for secrecy within organizations. Yes, I understand that there is information that cannot be public at times, especially as it deals with individuals...and yes, I understand that there are negotiations with other individuals and companies that need to be kept between those parties to ensure right and proper behavior of others. But why would anyone want to withhold information from others that might just help them do their job a little bit better? Let's look at a couple of scenarios:
  1. As an employee of an organization, the more I understand about the finances, the more likely it is that I will shape my work to better the bottom line. When that information is withheld from me, not only can I not respond with changed work habits, I will probably more than likely engage in unintentional activities that can hurt the financial aspects of the organization.
  2. When people face difficulties in their lives, they will often say such things as "Now I'm telling you this, but please do not share it with anyone else." WHY NOT? Within any given organization, people come together for a common purpose and good. The more those people can build a sense of community, the better they can do their work. In sharing the good as well as the bad, a community has a better chance of pulling together. Is there a risk in sharing one's life? Absolutely. But given a safe environment, that sharing can produce amazing community - and organizational results.
  3. Don't you hate it when someone says to you, "Now I shouldn't be telling you this, but..." or even worse, "Now I'm going to tell you something but you can't breathe a word of this to anyone else." Those type of comments breed secrecy - AND power games. What am I supposed to do with this type of information? I have learned to actually say to people, "Are you sure I should know what you are about to tell me? And if so, what do you want me to do with the information?" It gives the person telling me the secret a chance to pause and consider their action - and it keeps me from knowing things that compromise me and my position.
  4. I have heard people say, "We can't share this information because most of the people in the organization would not understand it." My response is that we need to help them understand it. We so often sell people short on their ability to comprehend information and use it in an effective manner. If information is worth having, then it should be worth using. And if it is worth using by some, it is more than likely to be worth using by many. So train people how to use more and more information throughout the organization.
  5. Finally, people like to use information (or hoard information) because in their eyes it gives them power. NEWS FLASH - information has NO power unless it is shared and used. Perhaps this is one of the main roles of a leader - to share information in a way that provides for sense-making to the people of the organization, and to assist others in using that information for the good of the organization and its constituents. Giving information (read "power") to more and more people not only creates a sense of ownership, it makes the organization itself more powerful.

So I guess it is no secret that I don't like secrets. One quick caveat - there are times in order to protect the institution and its people that one cannot tell everything. Perhaps an option at that point is to be honest and say that sharing this information would hurt individuals and the organization - and that the information cannot and will not be shared . The key to integrity at that point is then to NEVER share that information with anyone. That action alone can build an incredible sense of trust, which will allow for more information to be shared in the future.

1 comment:

Michelann said...

Great post! I totally agree. One of the most prevalent symptoms of negative politics in organizations is the use of information as currency. It breeds distrust and disengagement which never helps the bottom line.