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Top Secret

Last week I spent time doing archival research at the archives of Senator Mike Mansfield. I was searching for information on behalf of an author who is writing about the U.S. Congress and the C.I.A. Now this might seem like a sidetrack from my usual organization development posts, but I found the archive search engaging on many levels. Following this experience, one of the things I am considering is the question of what needs to be “top secret”. I scanned through many declassified documents that even after 50 years made me wonder why they were ever “classified” in the first place.

This is a question that most organizations struggle to decide, “What needs to be kept secret?” Today data is freely available from multiple sources. Even sitting in the local coffee shop finds us “located” by the GPS in our phone, the IP address in our computer, or our credit card swiped at the register. Transparency has become a business buzz word. Yet this is a complex issue, full of paradox. How do we protect intellectual property while encouraging growth and change? How do we retain our privacy when we can be “located” so easily?

While not ignoring the complexity, I would argue that much less needs to be kept secret than is currently under lock and key. Our organizations need truth and trust like our bodies need water and oxygen. We need to act with integrity and honesty. We should be willing to ask and answer questions – and not just the ones we wish others would ask. Our organizations are healthier when openness flourishes.

Research demonstrates that organizational openness is a competitive advantage as measured by employees retained and customer loyalty. Research in interpersonal neurobiology demonstrates that our brains function more effectively when we have certainty about how things function, knowing what to expect. What will each of us do to promote honesty, integrity, and openness? What will we “declassify” within our organizations?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting topic…. thanks for getting my brain going so early in the morning.

    My guess is that our behaviors around “secrets” goes back to the parental style of management that was the rule in the 1950-80’s…. until we really got comfortable with breaking the psychological contact of employment the company really directed the actions of employees. The “parent” decided what training or position the “child” was ready for, etc. and I think also decided what information the “child” could handle knowing about.

    You’re right, information is now everywhere and we encourage organizations to be open and transparent. However, I still see and sense that they struggle with the question – “can they handle it”?

    What do you think about this observation? Have a wonderful day.

    With a smile,
    Debbie

    August 4, 2010
  2. friesengroup #

    Hi Debbie,
    Great question, “Can they handle it?” My first thought asks, “What is behind that question?” I agree that it could be the “parent” protecting the child, a pattern backed by more than 40 years of psychology research. I wonder if another possibility is managements’ need for control.

    In either case, the assumption is that the employee or “child” isn’t resilient and doesn’t have the ability (right?) to participate in creating their future.

    I think it’s definitely worth struggling with your observation along with the underlying assumptions. Thanks for adding to the conversation!
    Kathleen

    August 4, 2010

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