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:
- Some Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that.
Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here
are some of their techniques.
- On Organizational Coups d'Etat
- If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed
your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
- Virtual Termination with Real Respect
- When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid
travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people
in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- Some entries from my personal collection of useful insights.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
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- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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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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