Demanding Confidentiality

Demanding Confidentiality

There is a destructive habit I’ve observed in some leaders. It is a habit that erodes the trust of those they lead and often produces expensive messes. I want to warn you about this habit. It boils down to this: demanding confidentiality unnecessarily and unwisely.

Insecure leaders have a tendency to request too much confidentiality. Their conversations are laced with phrases like “just between you and me,” or “speaking confidentially,” or “cone of silence,” or “if you tell anyone I said this I’ll deny it.” They ask for ironclad confidentiality from too many people and for the smallest of reasons. It doesn’t serve them well.

Here’s why.

First, most confidences are broken. The reason for this is that most people just can’t deal with the pressure of knowing something others don’t know. They have to blurt it out. They have to be the one with the thrilling secret. It is all too much for them. You are setting yourself up for a mess if you demand absolute secrecy from too many people. Most folks just can’t handle it. This is an unfortunate truth of human nature, but it is truth leaders ought to remember.

Second, leaders only compromise themselves when they rely on unnecessary confidentiality. Anyone who constantly asks for secrecy, who seems to have a lot they want to hide, creates a culture of insecurity, distrust, and suspicion around them. People sense both the insecurity and the weird fact that there always seems to be something to conceal. They wonder why, and eventually they start questioning the character of the leader.

Here are my suggestions for making a change.

First, realize that most of this insistence upon confidentiality is unnecessary. If you can’t risk your conversation being repeated, it is usually better not to have it in the first place. In other words, make it your rule not to say what can’t be repeated—not unless it is absolutely necessary.

Second, go beyond demanding confidences and instead communicate well so that confidences aren’t necessary. Here’s an example from my life. I once said this to a boardroom full of people: “I believe Tom is in the wrong role. I think we need to move him. And I have told him this so that he won’t be afraid and to invite him to be a partner in this move.”

Now, suppose I had said, “I believe Tom is in the wrong role, but don’t tell him. I want absolute confidentiality about this.” My request for confidentiality would probably have been broken, Tom would have been hurt, and the firm would have been harmed. Far better that I communicated “ahead” of the need for confidentiality.

Do you see that constantly demanding confidentiality is the way of the insecure leader? The calm, confident, consistent leader speaks truth as far as it needs to be known, seldom demands confidentiality, and ends up earning trust as a result.

Ponder this, and make the changes you need to make to inspire trust in those you lead.