Confidentiality and Secrecy

Group of People w dialog bubbles

Are you a leader who wants to hear the truth? Most say yes, but their behaviors prove otherwise.

The pros/cons of getting to the truth:


  • It’s a fast way to making sustainable decisions
  • You foster an open & honest team culture
  • You tap into everyone’s perspectives, experience, data
  • You can ID problems before they’re problems
  • You can co-solve the problems with others
  • You save time, money, effort
  • You feel no need to be right, but just get to the best outcome — with others


  • You might hear things you don’t like
  • You might feel out of control
  • You might feel badly that you hadn’t through of every side
  • You might feel overwhelmed by the truth
  • You might not know what to do (and feeling responsible to figure it out on your own)
  • You have other priorities
  • You feel like you have to be right

Getting over the “cons” takes some awareness and insight into yourself and your intentions and motivations. You can solve those through some introspection with yourself, others and a coach. If you still want to lead in an open and honest way, keep reading.

Finding the Truth
The easiest way to find the “truth” as a leader is to remove any repercussions. First, let’s define the “truth,” as everyone has his/her truth. It depends on perspective, context, experience, focus, emotions. People in fear see different things than people in confidence, even if they’re in the same room, in the same meeting. People looking for symptoms see different things that those looking for core-issues. It depends, so the fastest way to get to the truth is to ask lots of people within a specific context.

Watch these videos here and here to see what I mean about seeing what you see — it depends on your focus, also known as selective attention. The “truth” is elusive. A truth is more likely to surface when people agree on that truth, based on the facts, experience and capacity of those people at that time. To find the truth, keep your mind open and keep asking people about what they know, think and any facts they access.

Removing Repercussions
To create a healthy team culture that fosters honesty and truth sharing, removing repercussions works best. What’s fascinating in my experience as a coach is that most people THINK they’re BEING honest and open and INVITING OTHERS to do so, yet INADVERTENTLY DISCOURAGE people from being honest and open. Examples:

  • A VP of a large high-tech company thought she was open and honest, asking everyone on the team for their opinions and when she hears something she doesn’t like, she questions people in an interrogative manner (Q&A, not a discussion), making it seem that she’s really trying to undermine the opinion to prove her point. After time, she received less and less of the truth or people’s opinions and in frustration, replaced her staff — two or three times. She said “It’s impossible to find good people who have the guts to tell me the truth!!” In fact, she was unaware that her behavior drove the outcome and when she realized that, went through a “deep dive” into the reasons she was afraid to hear the truth and then shifted things from there. She was actually scared of hearing about things she couldn’t “control,” when in fact, no one can control anything outside of his/her thoughts, feelings and behavior — but that’s not what we’re socialized to believe. We’re taught to “control the situation” and that’s an illusion. She made changes in her thoughts, feelings and behavior and suddenly, she was getting everyone’s truth.
  • Another leader, a CIO of a large organization, was scared of telling his boss the truth about a problem and this fear, affected the way he “heard” the truth from his staff. Several IT employees informed him of the problem and offered various solutions, yet he focused on ways to cover up the problem, instead of solving it. That created fear on his team, focusing everyone’s attention on the cover-up instead of the solution. The problem grew, which made it increasingly hard to hide and, because everyone’s had been focusing on the cover-up, it made the solution more elusive.

Other common behavior that discourages open and honest sharing:

  • leaders ask for opinions, yet never implement any of them
  • leaders ask for opinions and use that information, at a later point, as a weapon
  • leaders ask for opinions, yet become irritated when they’re not what they wanted to hear
  • leaders react to peoples’ truths by undermining parts of the facts
  • leaders mock some peoples’ ideas
  • leaders blame people for their ideas, stating or insinuating that there’s a problem in the logical thinking
  • leaders avoid talking about specific issues

Confidential can be defined as information about someone or a group of people that will not hurt anyone else. Sounds easy, yet hard to come by in today’s society as confidentiality is often confused with secrecy. For example, a conversation with my doctor about my health is likely not to hurt anyone else. But if I was the President of the US, I’d have to disclose that info. A conversation regarding one’s salary, following a policy that’s fairly applied to everyone will not hurt anyone. When it’s unfairly applied, then it’s a secret. Confidentiality has more exceptions than rules and in today’s society, the rules and exceptions are fuzzy. Edward Snowden proved that — having to decide whether to keep organizational activities confidential, even when unethical and illegal. He had to choose between honesty, integrity, fairness, legality and breaking the confidentiality clause of his employment contract and chose to blow the whistle. It’s common practice today that people confuse confidentiality and secrecy in legal contracts, creating unnecessary complexities. Something to be conscious of and savvy about as a leader.

A secret can be defined as information about someone or a group of people that hurt others, because it’s often done with the intent of hiding specific information — yet, not alway the case. A secret between two sisters about their parent’s upcoming surprise party is unlikely to hurt anyone, but most secrets are held to create an imbalance of power. Secrets between Bernie Madoff and those at NASDAQ and the SEC assured them financial gain, but others great costs. Foodbabe (aka Vani Hari) exposes secrets of “food” companies (food is in quotes because much of the packaged foods are chemically-created versus food-based) because those secrets promote danger to public health. If you lead a “food” company, would you accept misinforming the public in order to make your sales target? If you consumed “foods” from those companies knowing that they contain ingredients that cause obesity and other illnesses? What if everyone starting assuming that business can be ethical and successful at the same time?

Are you Leading or Following?
It’s a choice to lead or follow. Most people follow others, thinking that it will reduce their failure rate and keep them secure. In today’s world, that no longer works. At every turn, in every part of life, you are asked to make decisions that will affect your livelihood, without the information to do it — you’ll take on more risk that the person asking you to take on that risk. For example, at a doctor’s office, your heart surgeon will ask you to decide about and sign agreement for heart surgery, even when you don’t know what to do. At work, you’ll be asked to sign employment contracts that waive your rights to work with competitors/other companies, will you sign it? Again at work, you’ll have to make a decision to join a company even if you have little visibility into what it’s really like to do so. What if you chose Worldcom or Enron or Arthur Anderson? Eating food — you’re responsible for identifying and choosing what goes into your mouth, even when you might not realize that “potato chips” actually don’t include potatoes or soda includes ingredients fit for unclogging a drain. Even with an airline ticket, you’ll be asked to print it at home and remember to bring it with you.

Today’s world shifts most, if not all of the responsibility and risk from organizations and experts (doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc) to individuals. In such a world, the best choice is to lead instead of follow — making conscious, informed decisions that promote your values, options and flexibility. For example, signing over for heart surgery after you’ve heard many expert’s opinions and can weight your options. Making choices that support your success over time — by sticking to the values you respect and making decisions accordingly. Thinking in a congruent manner (aligning your thoughts, feelings and behavior) that empowers your self-confidence. Being aware of the ways your thoughts and feelings affect your behavior and behaving in ways that create value for everyone. Thinking big. Leading bigger.

Keeping information confidential (no repercussions to others) or secret (intent of hiding truths from others) affects your ability to lead successfully in various contexts. It affects your credibility and therefore, influence. What have you chosen until today? What will you choose from today onward?