Off the Record

One of the first things people ask for in their relationship with a coach or consultant is confidentiality. Clients often begin by stating: “What I’m about to say is off the record.” It is certainly important to establish that the information and feelings we share will be held with integrity. Without establishing mutual trust it is unlikely anything of value will be exchanged. But what in fact is “confidentiality?” I ask the question because I find that confidentiality is often a myth, and that to believe in it and rely on it is clearly problematic.

Here’s the American Heritage Dictionary definition for “confidential:” – adj. 1. Done or communicated in confidence; secret. 2. Entrusted with the confidence of another. 3. Denoting confidence or intimacy.

(In correlation, “trust” is the first definition for confidence.)

“Secret” is the problematic factor. How cogent is it to have secrets in the workplace? To hold secrets about one’s personal truth is totally ineffective and unproductive. I laugh to consider that anything is ever really a secret. Many people think confidentiality means telling one person at a time, each telling bartered with a promise of secrecy. Plus, human beings are far more perceptive than they openly acknowledge, and they usually pick up at least enough sense of a secret’s presence to become mildly debilitated by the undertone of resentment or discomfort they are apt to feel in response.

Example – Mark chooses to reassign contract work that he had promised to Dan. He tells his secretary, Sue, to keep it under wraps. He doesn’t need to deal with Dan’s disappointment. After all, no firm deal was ever made. Dan gets discouraged waiting to receive a work-date, and wonders why Sue has become mysteriously evasive. The secret is evident in the missing communications. Dan becomes suspicious and de-motivated.

I also chuckle at how obvious some “secrets” are to everyone but the person who holds it. Example- Judy is looking for a new job. She’s been coming in late, taking long lunches, and inventing myriad excuses for time out of the office. Having made the decision to leave the company, her attitude has also changed. She becomes the weak link of her team and productivity drops.

I’m sure you might tee-hee if you worked with a group in which everyone was talking about a secret under his or her breath at the water cooler, while otherwise playing dumb. Example- Helen reports John for discrimination and harassment and he is placed on probation. Still unsatisfied, Helen seeks legal council and privately interviews individual associates to see if they’ll support her case. Everyone is fearful about how these combined actions are affecting the department, but no one brings the discussion into the open. Communication and work suffer.

These are some of the fruits of the mythical aspect of “confidentiality.” Though none of the examples are truly funny, the illusion of “secrecy” can be. This kind of communication smacks of immaturity. It keeps us from confronting problems that need to be pinpointed and discussed, and keeps us from taking adult responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. The result is decreased morale and siphoned synergy.

Another viable condition for shared information might be “anonymity,” but even that tends to be unreal. When reviewing anonymous associate feedback a recipient often has a very good idea of who-said-what based on a comment’s syntax or content. The point should be to increase one’s openness to learn from feedback, versus pretend we don’t know its source. Feigned ignorance in order to maintain autonomy prevents resolution.

What consultants really need to promise is “discretionary” use of shared information based on the trust, which defines “confidence.” That is an authentic context in which to open the way to truthful communication. Trust implies that I will use your information or perceptions wisely to create something better for everyone, and that you can be confident something productive will come from telling your truth, even if it requires risk or painful confrontation.

Because consultants need the freedom to use shared information to innovate constructive outcomes it is advisable to be realistic about confidentiality and anonymity at the outset. I recommend a frank discussion of their illusory aspects contrasted with a description of the benefits of open discourse. We must also provide as much assurance as possible that issues can be worked through for the purpose of improving interpersonal flow and task productivity. This approach is realistic. Truth gains trust – even when it’s challenging.

There are times when the grand scheme of business demands confidentiality and when a secret might actually benefit everyone. If you know a year in advance the business will be closing it wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone to announce it before the details have been worked out. However, on a day to day basis secrecy puts a strangle hold on interpersonal and tactical flow.

The Nineties have been the decade of promoting openness in the workplace. When examining team and individual effectiveness the cornerstone for the foundation of openness is a commitment to constructive candor.

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