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Can you keep a secret?

Violate someone's trust once and you're toast

by on
in Leaders & Managers,People Management

by "Z"

Here's one skill no one will teach you that can make or break your career: the ability to keep a secret.

Violate someone's trust once and you're toast. People don't forget. I was once weighing whether to promote a sales manager, Jack. When I asked around to learn what people thought of Jack, I kept hearing some variation of “Jack can't be trusted.” That sealed his fate.

Visualize a megaphone

To speak with discretion, imagine that everything you say is being broadcast to everyone at the organization. Pretend you're talking through a megaphone, blaring your comments far and wide for all to hear.

I make it a policy not to pass along what others tell me in confidence. If you get in the habit of saying, "Here's what I heard through the grapevine,” your listeners will pressure you to admit who told you. There's nothing worse than having someone pester you to reveal your source, especially if the person doing the pestering ranks higher than you. Eventually, you'll buckle and spill the beans.

Know who's listening

Keeping a secret requires more than discretion. You also need to be aware of your surroundings. Don't discuss private issues where others can eavesdrop. I was once standing in the hall when I overheard two managers blabbing about a furloughed worker. One of the managers had been in a closed meeting that morning where I explicitly told everyone not to say a word. It's bad enough that this manager couldn't keep his mouth shut. What's worse is that he spoke about it where anyone could hear!

Never discuss delicate matters at work unless you're certain you're in a soundproof room. Don't continue the conversation as you open the door. And don't think for a second that the restroom or a quiet nook is private.

Ask permission to tell

A CEO has to read people well. Some folks aren't going to reveal something personal and then add, "Of course, I just told you a secret and I expect you to keep it." It goes without saying that what you heard is for your ears only.

If the issue raises legal questions, ask, "I'd like to investigate what you've said. Do I have your permission to share what we've discussed with the HR director or another appropriate officer?" Or you can say, "I assume you want this held in confidence. But with your permission, I'd like to share this information with the appropriate company officials. I assure you I won't use your name without asking first."

Negotiating these issues gets easier with experience. Soon you'll learn that earning trust isn't all that hard--and it's a powerful skill that will groom you for my job.


"Z" is a 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield, having climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company.

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