You Have to Promise Not to Tell a Soul
by Rick Brenner
You're at lunch with one of your buddies, who's obviously upset. You ask why. "You have to promise not to tell a soul," is the response. You promise. And there the trouble begins.
Someone, sometime in the past month, has probably asked you, "If I tell you this, do you promise not to tell a soul?" If this has happened to you, you probably agreed. And it's reasonably likely that you later heard the same story in a slightly different form from somebody else, which meant that someone other than you was spreading the word. You were respecting a confidence, while others were out there blabbing.
That can be bad news. For example, in a largish meeting, someone might innocently ask if you know anything at all about a somewhat related subject. How do you respond? Do you deny all knowledge? Do you betray the confidence? If you deny all knowledge, you would be lying, and you risk appearing to be out of touch, or being caught in a lie. If you betray the confidence, you risk damaging a valuable friendship.
Distinguishing between personal issues and organizational issues helps. When someone confides in you about a personal matter, it's best to honor that confidence without reservation. But since organizational issues rarely stay "secret," organizational confidences are usually just early notifications. A promise not to ever repeat what you're about to be told can therefore become a serious liability. It's best to find ways to lend support to your confidant without jeopardizing your own political safety. What can you do?
Negotiate with your confidant in advance. Here are some protections you can request.
- Time limit
- Ask if you can be free to talk after some specific date. Try to narrow your vulnerability to a limited time window if you can.
- Limited right to repeat
rarely stay secret for long.
Consider them early
notifications, and put limits
on your non-disclosure.
- Ask if there are some people you can talk to. For example, your confidant might have spoken to others already, and talking to them might do no harm. Or it might be OK to talk to people who are distant enough from the immediate issue — your spouse or personal acquaintances outside the company, for example. Limit the "cone of silence" if you can.
- Escape clauses
- Let your confidant know that if you hear the information from any other source, then you'll feel free to discuss it, without attribution. Explain that if the information is out there, your denying knowledge of it could be a risk for you.
In time you'll find more risk reduction tactics. Send them to me and I'll post them.
By the way, this article isn't confidential. Feel free to talk about it with the next soul who says to you, "Don't tell a soul." Top Next Issue
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- Some Truths About Lies: Part II
- Knowing when someone else is lying doesn't make you a more ethical person, but it sure can be an advantage if you want to stay out of trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part III
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
- On Organizational Coups d'Etat
- If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
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- Extrasensory Deception: Part II
- In negotiating agreements, the partners who do the drafting have an ethical obligation not to exploit the advantages of the drafting role. Some drafters don't meet that standard.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
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