Someone, sometime in the past month, has probably asked you, "If I tell you this, do you promise not to tell a soul?" If this has happened to you, you probably agreed. And it's reasonably likely that you later heard the same story in a slightly different form from somebody else, which meant that someone other than you was spreading the word. You were respecting a confidence, while others were out there blabbing.
That can be bad news. For example, in a largish meeting, someone might innocently ask if you know anything at all about a somewhat related subject. How do you respond? Do you deny all knowledge? Do you betray the confidence? If you deny all knowledge, you would be lying, and you risk appearing to be out of touch, or being caught in a lie. If you betray the confidence, you risk damaging a valuable friendship.Distinguishing between personal issues and organizational issues helps. When someone confides in you about a personal matter, it's best to honor that confidence without reservation. But since organizational issues rarely stay "secret," organizational confidences are usually just early notifications. A promise not to ever repeat what you're about to be told can therefore become a serious liability. It's best to find ways to lend support to your confidant without jeopardizing your own political safety. What can you do?
Negotiate with your confidant in advance. Here are some protections you can request.
- Time limit
- Ask if you can be free to talk after some specific date. Try to narrow your vulnerability to a limited time window if you can.
- Limited right to repeat
- Organizational confidences
rarely stay secret for long.
Consider them early
notifications, and put limits
on your non-disclosure.
- Ask if there are some people you can talk to. For example, your confidant might have spoken to others already, and talking to them might do no harm. Or it might be OK to talk to people who are distant enough from the immediate issue — your spouse or personal acquaintances outside the company, for example. Limit the "cone of silence" if you can.
- Escape clauses
- Let your confidant know that if you hear the information from any other source, then you'll feel free to discuss it, without attribution. Explain that if the information is out there, your denying knowledge of it could be a risk for you.
In time you'll find more risk reduction tactics. Send them to me and I'll post them.
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical
- Now that CEOs will be held personally accountable for statements they make about their organizations,
we can all expect to be held to higher standards of professional ethics. Some professions have formal
codes of ethics, but most don't. What ethical principles guide you?
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- Difficult Decisions
- Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest,
yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How
can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
- On the Appearance of Impropriety
- Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean,
what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
- When I gain an important insight, or when I learn a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my
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See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
- And on April 22: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 22.
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Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.
Here are some dates for this program:
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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