Did you ever have to build a flexible authorization system from scratch? Then you also have a good idea of how complicated handling confidential information in real life can be. Except, the real-life version is even more nuanced and does not always work as intended. How come?
Some people say those leadership roles sometimes can feel quite lonely. In some way, this is true - the more confidential information you’re exposed to, the more careful you have to be if you want not to cause accidental damage to your team, peers, and even the company.
What Is Confidential Information
My definition for the sake of discussing this topic - confidential information is any piece of information that should not be public within an organization. Only a set of people (based on roles, direct reports, or any other criteria) should have access or even be aware of its existence.
Sounds straightforward, right? The problem is, that’s not always so just 0 or 1.
Regardless of how your organization deals with transparency, we cannot disclose some areas without the explicit agreement of a person. Often, such details are also protected by law—for example, health data. Different jurisdictions can treat it very differently (e.g., birth date), so to be on the safe side, it’s a good topic to cover with your company’s counsel.
But these are not such exciting examples because they are simply law subjects.
Interesting things start happening when dealing with not-so-sensitive subjects, at least at first glance.
Before taking a look at a few colorful examples, we need to agree on two things that never change:
- we, humans, like to talk and share news
- we, humans, in the absence of details, often assume the worst
Disagree? Change my mind in the comments ;-) But with these two Ultimate Human Constants, let’s zoom into a few examples.
Shift of Projects
Say you are participating in a workgroup discussing future long-term projects. One of the topics, of course, is staffing. According to current growth projections, to pull some of them off, there might be a need to reshuffle some priorities and potentially cancel or pause several less critical projects. In other words, completely usual high-level prioritization conversation. You don’t even know much more yourself; agreements are more on the principal than tactical level.
Seems so innocent; what could go wrong if you share all of that with one of the Engineers over a coffee?
In the effect of Ultimate Human Constants, it is likely that those tentative and, in principle, still open plans, as a fact to happen, will soon become known to some part of the company. Second, teams, who have been listed to get a review of their projects and backlogs, are now facing a big dilemma called “what is going to happen to us???”. This dilemma is so powerful. I have seen teams grinding to a halt with their work if a rumor hit some specific soft spot.
And here you go - you are off to put off those small fires, with a tour of explanations, how everything will be fine, how we are talking about growth and not layoffs. So it is burning that time I’m sure you don’t have too much on your hands already.
Another one: say you know that a colleague you worked with before, and now doing a great job in another team, just got their promotion confirmed. It’s as fresh as it can be. Nobody knows about it just yet, aside promotion committee. So when finishing some next call when this person is on, you decide to give a lovely “Congratulations with promotion!” ending. There are clapping, smiles, thank-yous, and feels-good emotions that fill your heart. Well deserved!
You likely just forced a lot of work (that was carefully planned) an urgent matter. Communication with their team is one. Were there other candidates with only one spot to take? They also need to be informed appropriately with a good bit of explanation. Sometimes this is also a psychologically charged conversation if the stakes are high, and somebody is likely to be seriously disappointed. Also, occasionally final compensation conversations and negotiations happen after the promotion only. That also needs time and space to occur.
Indeed, you’re not going to win the most loved employee of the month title after this rush of joy.
If it’s such a minefield, how do you ensure you don’t leak something accidentally in a way that can hurt someone?
Unfortunately, it’s too complex to provide a straightforward algorithm for how not to step into an accidental danger zone.
But let me try to suggest a quick (hopefully) thinking checklist:
- Who are people directly affected by knowledge of this information? Do they know already?
- What challenges could occur if this information is available to the entire company?
- Can this information be misinterpreted if revealed without context?
- Is this information “explosive” and a subject of rapid spread?
If you get some concerning thoughts after going over such a checklist, I recommend proceeding with that piece of information extremely, extremely carefully.
It’s also a great practice to think about a dependencies map, how you want to reveal a piece of information, and in what order. Then, they can almost be standardized in reoccurring situations and will not require too much extra thinking in the future.
Let’s take an example of a promotion (right after the promotion committee made a decision). The order should be something like this:
- Upper management and People team to get their final seal of approval just in case of any other obstacles (e.g., legal, notice periods, etc.)
- Promotee’s direct manager
- Promotee (if a direct manager doesn’t do this announcement themselves)
- Promotee’s team
- The rest of the organization.
Given some exceptional circumstances, this can be surely adjusted, but from now on, doing a promotion communication won’t require too much mental effort.
Experienced managers have such maps in their heads for most common situations implicitly, and they just don’t know it ;-)
Note On Transparency
Very few organizations apply radical transparency policy and for a reason. When we’re emersed in something, it looks so obvious that we tend not to overdo explaining those things to others. But without those explanations, a lot of information either doesn’t make any sense or, even worse - points in the opposite direction than it actually does.
Therefore, the final advice is that if you decide to disclose something, make sure you’ve got an extensive world tour plan around the team. Purely for explanations.
In context we trust!
Photo by Noelle Otto