Secrecy creates a conflict between the goal to connect with others and the goal to keep the secret information unknown, which manifests in feelings of social isolation and motivational conflict

Slepian, Chun, Mason

 

Secrets are bad for you. There’s a growing body of research about the harmful consequences of keeping secrets. Secrecy is associated with anxiety, depression, fatigue, and decreased motivation and physical health. It’s not the existence of secrets that’s so harmful. It seems to be the act of keeping them. Think of Dostoevsky’s  Raskolnikov or Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. And it’s not all secrets. It’s specifically secrets that are kept solely for the purpose of avoiding the social cost of disclosure. Think trade secret vs. disclosing a personal trauma. 

 

What’s bad for people is bad for orgs. The worst functioning companies I’ve ever seen were riddled with secrecy. Not trade secrets. Just idiot secrets. 

 

We worked on a bunch of projects in a bunch of departments at Company X5. And every single project head warned us not to tell other department heads what we were working on. This imposed secrecy in no way served the best interests of the company. All it served was selfish personal agendas and counterproductive politics. 

 

I consistently see three source causes of unnecessary secrecy. 

  1. Avoiding a powerful Industrious/Stupid decision maker. There’s a 2×2 grid plot of the industrious<->lazy and stupid<->smart axes that originates from the Prussian military. Industrious/Smart make good staff officers, Lazy/Smart make good field officers, Lazy/Stupid are useful under certain circumstances, and Industrious/Stupid are to be avoided at all costs because they have terrible ideas and the energy to act upon them. Industrious/Stupid decision makers go off half-cocked on partial information, so people cut them out of the information loop until they’re certain to avoid disruption. This is both an organizational and a personnel problem. 
  2. Avoiding a dysfunctional relationship between departments. A colleague was recently asked by one client department (design) not to disclose her work to another client department (product). This had an unhealthy impact on the designer and did not in any way impact the core dysfunction between design & product. This is fixable. It just requires the energy and courage to address the real problem. This is an organizational problem. 
  3. Empire building. I’ve seen managers hoard information in order to further their own agendas, and by their estimation, their careers. I’ve seen it pretty frequently. It is wildly destructive and cannot be tolerated. This is a personnel problem. 

 

I’ve taken a company public. And gotten emails every week from the chief lawyer about what I couldn’t talk about. That was fine. It was reasonable. There’s a lot of proprietary information at work. But asking people to keep secrets within a company to avoid conflict or further agendas is selfish and destructive.