Can you keep a secret?

Most people can't keep secrets.  It goes against the grain of human nature to keep information to ourselves and yet so often I see senior management naively assume that bad news won't get out or that gossip leading to speculation and insecurity won't proliferate.  In case you are in any doubt about this, let me spell it out for you: PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK.  

There are three primary reasons why people in companies or large organisations spill the beans.

  1. The fear factor - because they are worried and are fulfilling the basic human need for comfort by sharing a worry or a woe.
  2. The simple truth that information is power – and the opportunity to disclose and display knowledge overwhelms  the sense of right and wrong.
  3. Vindictiveness, anger or frustration with a pending decision and the desire to cause damage to the people making those decisions by exposing their pending announcement to drive a negative reaction.

So what should business leaders do when it comes to passing on sensitive information?  My golden rule is quite simple: Be deliberate in how you release information and have a plan.  I've lost count of the number of times leaders blithely assume that information won't get out.  It will and sooner than you think.  Once you've made a decision that is going to eventually need to be shared you need to sit down and think about the nature of that sharing process.  

Clearly there are times when legal impediments loom large – as is the case with stock market rules about disclosure.  But so often, the focus on other operational imperatives means that discussions about when and how disclosure will occur are left to the last minute.  You need time to prepare your messages and make sure you are talking to the right people with the correctly targeted messages.  Most critically, you need to ensure you are anticipating the likely questions and ensuring you have thought through how you will answer critical questions.  What will this mean to our jobs?  How do timing, cost and other consequences need to be considered?  Ultimately here we are talking about issue management planning, which companies like mine can help you with.

The critical thing is to assume that information will get out and it is far better to have a plan for an ordered release than to pretend those around you will keep their mouths shut.  Many years ago I recall a client whose most senior executive was notorious for warning his management team about keeping sensitive information in the board room.  Time and time again, though, the information would find its way outside.  Months later one of the other executives told me precisely the nature of the problem.  While the boss was good at warning others to be discrete, he had an alarming habit of letting the cat out of the bag over a few drinks.  Read a couple of espionage books if you don't believe me – people like to talk – even the guys at top.  So plan to be found out, because it WILL happen.