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Secrets Kill Productivity. But There Are Two Kinds of Secrets.

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“Two people can keep a secret,” goes the old expression, “as long as one of them is dead.” What’s up with secrets, and how they impact work?

I am here, as I usually am, to talk about productivity. I’m writing about how to get more done in less time, how to feel better about your work, and how to make sure that you take time off to truly recharge.

Today, however, I’m here to discuss secrecy. So let’s be upfront about it: secrets are terrible for productivity. And in the workplace, ideas that are kept from others fall into precisely two categories.

Keeping a Secret

© Flickr user Mick C

Intentional Institutional Deception

The first category of stuff we don’t say sounds like it should be an acronym. It’s intentional (meaning it is on purpose), it’s institutional (essential to the organization) and deception (lied about if necessary.) That is, an “IID.”

There are many examples of secrets we keep in the workplace:

  • Information which might lead to unrest – This is the noble lie. If you’re aware that layoffs are coming, you might decide not to tell people because you think they will become disengaged.
  • Personal privacy – If we learn things about individuals that they ask us to keep quiet, we should respect their wishes. This is especially the case in business, because it’s where individuals get their livelihood.
  • Legal ramifications – The law sometimes requires confidentiality. You may be under a gag order due to a contractual agreement, a court order, or something else. Hence the famous phrase, “we can neither confirm nor deny…
  • Preservation of power – When people are in charge and they have an authoritarian leadership style, hiding essential data is a common approach for keeping themselves on top.

For the most part, it’s pretty obvious why “intentional institutional deceptions” hurt productivity. If your controlling boss told you the deadline months in advance instead of springing it on you in the last week, you’d be able to plan your time better. If you knew your coworker Bobby was struggling with issues at home, you’d might decide to step up and help out rather than let the whole organization suffer.

But even items that seem like they ought to be kept under wraps are going to get out eventually. Not telling is really just delaying when people are told. And we all know we would rather find out sooner instead of later!

Unintentional Incidental Secrets

Besides the occasional IID, you’ve also got the more common UIS. This is when information isn’t particularly sensitive but you just haven’t gotten around to sharing it, either because you’re busy or because you feel ashamed.

Here are a few examples:

  • The status of your project – Because we tend to work in silos, most of your coworkers have no idea if you’re going to meet the deadline.
  • Your vacation schedule – Usually we know about our plans months in advance, thanks to the need to buy plane tickets and make reservations. But even if we put them on our calendars, our coworkers don’t usually check.
  • The problem you solved – How many times have you figured out a workaround, fixed something for a customer or a colleague, or developed a system that no one knows except for you? In a mature organization, undocumented knowledge is not knowledge..

Having this information makes you more productive. We keep secrets without meaning to, because we are busy. So what is the impact?

The Shift to Transparency

Now that we know that we shouldn’t keep so many secrets, we know what to do. Right? Unfortunately, the problem is much more complicated. According to an article in Entrepreneur:

92 percent of employees surveyed said they would work harder if their co-workers could see their goals — which tells us that the large majority of organizations are failing to make even their quarterly or annual goals public. When goal-setting becomes open and collaborative, managers can better recognize employees for their work, and employees are motivated to work harder.

There’s so much wrong here. First, it’s no surprise that this number is this high, because it’s a leading question. A better way to ask this is to do it in two parts, and do it both on a scale:

1. To what degree are your coworkers aware of your goals?

(not at all) 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 (fully aware)

2. Do you believe your coworkers’ have awareness of your goals impacts your level of effort?

(no impact) 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 (significant impact)

That way, you find out if there is transparency, and then you find out if competition is even a motivator. (Usually, it’s not a good one.)

And second: there’s the assumption that people want recognition (many don’t) and that working hard is related to motivation (it’s not, at least not for long.)

And there’s more. But that’s enough for now. In short: don’t keep secrets. They rarely help, and they usually hurt.

And now that you know something that was hidden before—onward!

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
Exhibit C: It was an option. It was even on the receipt. - 2 days ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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