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:
- Budget Shenanigans: Swaps
- When projects run over budget, managers face a temptation to use creative accounting to address the
problem. The budget swap is one technique for making ends meet. It distorts organizational data, and
it's just plain unethical.
- Approval Ploys
- If you approve or evaluate proposals or requests made by others, you've probably noticed patterns approval
seekers use to enhance their success rates. Here are some tactics approval seekers use.
- Telephonic Deceptions: I
- People have been deceiving each other at work since the invention of work. Nowadays, with telephones
ever-present, telephonic deceptions are becoming more creative. Here's Part I of a handy guide for telephonic
- Some Truths About Lies: IV
- Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception.
Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
- The Costanza Matrix
- The Seinfeld character "George Costanza" is famous for having said, "It's not a lie if
you believe it." What if you don't believe it and it's true? Some musings.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
- And on April 3: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I
- When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap. Available here and by RSS on April 3.
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- 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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