Thursday, March 1, 2012

Wood's Unsought Advice 4 of 5: Keep Secrets. Unless You Can't

Terry Pratchett once wrote, "Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom." Inspired by that aphorism (and hoping one day to be wise) I'm sharing some draft comments for a project I might develop in a few years: tips for my students who face a complex and changing workplace. 

Knowledge without context is a recipe for error. Let's say a friend of yours has recently purchased several bags of fertilizer. You know the fact, but you don't know the reason. Is your friend planning to grow a garden or plant a bomb? Context matters -- it may be an issue of life or death -- but it can be hard to discern. You see similar ambiguity in most workplaces. You learn things about your colleagues, but not always in a useful way. People share information with you, but not always with your best interests at heart.

At work you are awash in data. Posted signs, organizational charts, policy statements, formal histories, architectural structures… Each of these (and countless more) provide ways for you to know who's who and what's what. At the same time, much of the data you encounter fails to follow formal channels. This kind of information reflects the flows and dams of interpersonal communication that frequently generate more valuable knowledge than any company newsletter or scheduled meeting. 

Problem is, some of this information is mere gossip. 

Get together with enough people over time and you'll discover plenty of fascinating claims made by some people about others, their backgrounds, their interactions, their limitations, and their agendas. Seemingly innocuous, this kind of information can become distorted, as when you hear a disparaging story about a coworker at lunch only to learn an entirely different story from that colleague later in the afternoon.

For some folks, the very complexity of gossip is its best attribute. One can learn much by studying how a story shifts and warps with each retelling. The ability to trace a story's mutation from person to person helps many would-be office politicians exploit the connections that hold a place together. Best of all, sometimes these folks will promise to share that actionable intelligence with you. 

Even so, be wary of any colleague who leans toward you and whispers, "I really shouldn't pass this along, but I'll tell you..." At that moment, ask yourself, "If my friend would break someone's confidence for me, how do I know he wouldn't do the same thing about me?" Trust me on this one: Few people will keep your secrets for long. The power that comes from insider information -- getting it and sharing it -- is just too tempting.

When someone wants to share secrets about another person, your best strategy is avoidance: "Sorry, I don't want to contribute to the gossip mill." Just don't play the game. Cultivate instead a reputation for speaking directly with people, never settling for second-hand information. And should someone share their secrets with you, not as gossip but as genuinely personal information, never tell a soul. Keep secrets...

Until you can't.

In some cases, you never want to be the last person keeping a secret. Do you think that only Bernie Madoff, the disgraced ponzi schemer, went to prison for his crimes? He wasn't alone in paying the price. Many of his friends and family members also face jail time, financial ruin, or at least a lifetime of shame for holding Madoff's crimes in confidence. 

These supposedly smart people did a dumb thing by keeping Madoff's secrets. Why did they do it? Well, they too wanted to go along, to avoid being tarred as untrustworthy, as a snitch. They calculated a short-term benefit while ignoring the long-term cost. Today they're thinking differently, and you should too. 

It may be as simple as observing one person using discriminatory language in the workplace. Will you simply stand by and say nothing? Sure, you might rebuke that language immediately, or you might have a personal chat with the offender later on. OK. But what if the offense continues and nothing is done?

In such a case, you must share your concerns with a trusted person at a higher level of responsibility. That choice is fraught with difficulty, no doubt. You don't want to earn a reputation as a tattle-tale, whether in kindergarden or in the adult world, but neither do you want to confront this question: "You saw this and failed to report? Doesn't that mean that you allowed it to continue?"  

Don't trade in gossip, but remember: Some secrets simply can't be kept.

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