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 nondisclosure.
- 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.
By the way, this article isn't confidential. Feel free to talk about it with the next soul who says to you, "Don't tell a soul." Top Next Issue
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: II
- Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe
on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't
discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
- Influence and Belief Perseverance
- Belief perseverance is the pattern that causes us to cling more tightly to our beliefs when contradictory
information arrives. Those who understand belief perseverance can use it to manipulate others.
- On Reporting Workplace Malpractice
- Reporting workplace malpractice can be the right thing to do. And it's often career-dangerous. Here
are some risks to ponder before reporting what you know.
- Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus,
members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision
with all its relationships intact.
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way: V
- When I gain an important insight, or when I learn a lesson, I make a note. Example: If you're interested
in changing how a social construct operates, knowing how it came to be the way it is can be much less
useful than knowing what keeps it the way it is.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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