The value (and cost) of secrets

Arched eyebrows. A subtle “Let’s take this conversation offline.” The sneaking suspicion that the snide email you just received was also BCC’ed to your boss. Secrets and paranoia can ruin a perfectly nice day at the office.

There are a lot of secrets in every workplace, which makes for a lot of awkward contradictions. Employers routinely say they want to foster environments of honesty and openness, because it fosters open collaboration. Then they lay out regulatory demands, corporate policies, and unwritten cultural standards which call for all sorts of concealment and cloaking.

We’re not talking about basic block-and-tackle stuff about keeping financial and health care information private. We’re talking about all the distracting little secrets, lies, and distortions that can eat up your focus and transparency, and poison your openness with others.

Most workplace secrets aren’t even worth keeping in the long run. Here’s how you can filter out the bad ones.


The secret gets in the way of teamwork

Kevin G. Love, professor in the Department of Management at Central Michigan University, says that his decades of research have found that organizations which keep more internal secrets have more barriers to profitability and sustainability, because it’s harder to get everyone working together in a consistent and productive manner.

“It doesn’t really matter what the item is that you keep secret. The fact that you have a culture that allows secrecy at various levels, especially at the top, automatically mitigates potential,” he says. “Secrecy in and of itself is the antithesis of team orientation and teamwork.”


The secret spurs imaginations to run wild

Consider a typical scenario. Two candidates apply for one internal promotion. The one passed over receives no explanation for the decision, or one with platitudes but no real details. A run of the mill secret as secrets go, but one which may keep the spurned employee spinning a web of fantasies and self-deceptions for months to come.

“A lack of transparency makes people into naïve psychologists who may reach the wrong conclusion, including egregious or inaccurate assessments,” says Timothy P. Munyon, assistant professor of management at the University of Tennessee. “They’re going to wonder if they were passed over because the other person was attractive and funny instead of being a good performer.”


The secrets define the job

There are a select handful of jobs fundamentally concerned with keeping secrets. Short of taking up a career in international espionage or celebrity cosmetic surgery, however, most jobs shouldn’t have that issue. If employees can’t see what good they do beyond keeping up appearances, they won’t be invested.

“Nobody wants to be a con man. People who feel like they’re delivering value to their customers feel good about their jobs,” says Krishna Pendyala, author of Beyond the PIG and the APE.


The secret reveals the source to be lazy and avoidant

Some secrets are kept not because the information is valuable or sensitive, but simply to avoid having to discuss or justify it. It’s a sure sign of avoidant management behavior.

“Management takes time and it’s messy. If they stopped to get input, they would have to explain their plans and deal with conflict resolution,” Love says. “Secrecy is the easy way out, because people can’t blow back at you if they don’t know what’s going on, or they find out too late to do anything about it.”


The secrets are driving good people out

Employees overburdened with secrets may take the only way out available to them—out the door. “Employees should be aware of the authenticity of his or her supervisor and leadership, and the culture of the organization,” Pendyala says. “And if there’s a culture of secrecy or a lack of authenticity, they can make the choice to not be part of that company.”


The secrets are part of a culture handed down from on high

It’s easy enough to keep secrets because everybody else does and your voice is just one in a crowd. But cultural change really does start at the grassroots. “Middle managers are actually the most important in shaping culture. If you supervise five or 500 employees, you can give justification and explanations for what you do, and be just and equitable in giving out promotions and rewards,” Munyon says. “You have the power to shape the environment your employees work in, even if it’s different from the prevailing sentiment and values of the rest of the organization.”


The secret is a product of a bygone era

It’s 2016. Most answers from the storehouse of human knowledge are available with a quick glance at a pocket supercomputer. Put in that context, your arbitrary rules about information doled out on a need-to-know-basis looks pretty silly to people who grew up with that convenience.

“Younger workers are the ‘Why Generation’. They will do something for you, but they need to know why, and how it’s going to benefit them or the organization,” Love says. “Secrecy takes away that motivational framework.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.