Friday, January 19, 2020

What Everybody Needs to Know About Secrecy in the Workplace

The main thing people need to know about secrecy is that is usually isn't needed anyway. And unnecessary secrecy wastes time, costs money, and gives a huge boost to frustration and stress in the workplace. Here's how to combat it.

Unnecessary secrecy isn’t just plaguing governments these days, it seems that companies too do a better job of hiding data from their own managers that they do in making sure competitors can’t access it.

That’s the message from a recent survey, conducted on both sides of the Atlantic [link]. The consulting group Accenture spoke with more than 1,000 middle managers in large companies in the United States and United Kingdom to learn how they gather, use and analyze information.
[The survey] found that middle managers spend more than a quarter of their time—up to two hours a day—just looking for the information they need to do their jobs, and when they do find it, more than half of it is wrong or of no value to them. As a consequence of this, almost six out of 10 said that they miss information that might be valuable to their jobs almost every day because it exists somewhere else in the company and they just can't find it.
It seems that much of the difficulty arises because vital information is held on personal computers and databases, not in places on servers that are easily accessed by others.

Our corporate cultures are obsessed by questions of power and status, so this doesn’t surprise me. The old adage that knowledge is power has never been more widely acted upon. And during times when people fear for their jobs, nothing is more predictable than an increased tendency to hang on to any kind of leverage they possess. If that means making sure no one can get to important information except through them, that is what will happen.

Secrecy has one simple cause: lack of trust in others. If you trust your colleagues and bosses, there is no need to be secretive. You probably know perfectly well what information they need—or ought to have—and it’s clear that you should make sure that they get it. This doesn’t happen because you don’t trust them. And you probably have good reason. We no longer see those in charge taking the common good as their guide. Greedy executives put themselves and their own enrichment first, regardless of all the cant that is written about the purpose of management being to increase shareholder value. the invention of payment by stock options is only one of the ways that “shareholder value” has been converted into “executive enrichment.”

Unnecessary secrecy increases costs, wastes time, and hands competitors a huge advantage.
If trust breeds trust, mistrust breeds mistrust even more quickly. Greedy, self-serving executives create mistrust on an organizational scale. that’s why they should be reomved from positions of power. What they do is so harmful to the future of the business—and the true interests of the shareholders—that any short-term profits increases that may produce are insignificant in comparison. When you create a culture of greed, you virtually ensure that the organization will be filled with secrecy, backstabbing, and a massive waste of resources as people and departments fight their colleagues for advantage, not their competitors for market share.

Creativity thrives on the free flow of information. You never know when someone will connect seemingly disparate pieces of data and come up with a new product or approach that no one has thought of before. By making data hard to access, you are stifling one of the major engines of innovation. In that way too, your organization is shooting itself in the foot, if it allows unnecessary secrecy to become widespread.

To deal with pointless secrecy, you should:
  1. Assume all information should be open to everyone, unless you have a powerful and logical reason to keep it secure.

  2. Make sure that data is easily accessible when you aren’t there. If it’s on a personal computer, tell others how to find it. If it’s on a server, don’t hide it behind passwords and barriers.

  3. Don’t keep important information only on a laptop that you carry around with you. Indeed, don’t keep it there at all. We’ve seen too many cases where genuinely confidential data, such as people’s personal details, has been put of a laptop and them left in a cab or restaurant for thieves to find.

  4. If you think someone needs data that you have, and isn’t asking for it, send them a simple note explaining what it is and why you think it would be useful to them.

  5. If you find that any of your subordinates are hoarding data for no purpose, sit them down and explain why this is a bad idea. If that doesn’t work, you may need to resort to discipline.

  6. Before you do this, make sure that your own conscience is clear. Many people hide data from the boss as a matter of routine. Don’t be one of them.
Trust has to start somewhere, so that somewhere might as well be you.
We need to break the cycle of mistrust and that means taking the risk of trusting people instead. You can’t wait for them to “earn” your trust, because until you trust them they never will. And it has to start somewhere, so that somewhere might as well be you.

Secrecy should be restricted to an absolute minimum. In many cases, that means virtually none at all. Your competitors are probably far more interested in their own internal battles than they are in what you are doing. Besides, the more information that you make available to everyone, the harder it will be to pick out the small amounts that are truly significant to a competitor.

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Peter Vajda said...

Often our mistrust of others is a projection of our own inability to be we project the quality of mistrust on to others.

I might suggest we "look within" first, to see if we are authentic, living in integrity, and transparent in our do-ings and be-ings, in our relationships with ourselves and in our relationships with others before we too quickly assign the "untrustworthy" label to others.

11:34 AM  
ewherrmann said...

I couldn't agree with this article more. Needless secrecy in the workplace only makes for bad communication and a hostile work environment. Managers who hoard information are usually inadequate to be of any actual value otherwise. Great post, Carmine.

12:00 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Peter. Great comment as always.

1:47 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks too, EWH. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

1:48 PM  

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