Effective Teams Don’t Keep Secrets

There’s a difference between privacy, which is based on trust, and secrecy, which isn’t. To maximize your team’s potential, you need to foster privacy and eschew secrecy.
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
March 16, 2021
Updated: March 17, 2021
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
March 16, 2021
Updated: March 17, 2021

Our mental spaces are fascinating. Sometimes, we may keep certain information to ourselves because we know that we’re trusted to complete a task. We don’t need to involve anyone else in our work. Other times, we may hold things back because we know that we aren’t trusted at all. Silence is a self-preservation strategy.

In both cases, though we did the exact same thing, the meaning was completely different because of the wider culture we were in.

This schism reflects the difference between privacy, which is based on trust, and secrecy, which isn’t. As a leader in whatever space you’re in, you need to understand whether you have created a privacy- or secrecy-based culture in order to understand the communication patterns inside of your organization.

Your communication culture has a huge impact on the rest of your business. Cultivating an atmosphere of trust is essential for success. The level of trust people in your organization place in leaders and one another affects productivity, the health of teammates and long-term employee retention.

You need to understand the difference between privacy and secrecy so that you’re not letting the latter shape your company’s culture. In fact, you may accidentally be pushing folks toward a secrecy-based communication pattern now. Fortunately, several tools exist for fixing this situation and getting your team feeling comfortable again.

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Privacy Versus Secrecy

The differences between a privacy-based culture and a secrecy-based culture go deeper than the surface. Company culture affects everything it touches. To get a sense of how this works in practice, let’s look at a hypothetical product development team making a feature and how it might work in each culture to highlight the differences.

Privacy-Based Product Development

The cross-functional team confirms the plan for tackling their goals in the next quarter. They then set up a meeting cadence to check in, and they make clear communication rules in a public channel so the rest of the team can keep up with each other when there are questions.  Backchanneling is nonexistent, and there aren’t many questions because micromanagement is at a minimum. The group identifies problems as they come up, brings them to the attention of everyone on the team and discusses them publicly.

Secrecy-Based Product Development

The cross-functional team confirms the plan for tackling their goals in the next quarter. The design team doesn’t trust the engineering team, so they don’t mention that they have a secret project to build a design system that will cut into the larger project. Engineering keeps their refactoring secret from product because they are tired of being “bothered.” Meetings are on the calendar to check in, but no one takes them seriously because all real communication goes through backchannels, and anything public, including the meetings, is just theater. Teams may identify problems, but they aren’t dealt with because no one believes they’re actually going to be solved. As a result, work slows down and management starts micromanaging to solve the issues. The micromanagement makes teams retreat more.

Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, the latter scenario is closer to reality for a lot of teams. Let’s see some things that may lead to this kind of culture.

 

What Pushes Secrecy Culture?

Although many factors contribute to a secrecy culture, they all boil down to a lack of trust.

If I don’t believe that other members of my culture have my best interests at heart, I may decide to keep as many secrets as possible to prevent information from being leveraged against me. As human beings, our first instinct is to survive. This strategy makes sense as it’s kept our bloodlines around long enough to get to the present day.

Many of the behaviors in the secrecy-based example lead to a lack of trust. Let’s grab the two that I highlighted: backchanneling and micromanagement.

Backchanneling occurs when one person talks to someone else privately about strategy or execution. What makes backchanneling so insidious is that it starts off innocently. I think I’m just open a Slack DM between me and someone else to talk about something small. Unfortunately, it rarely stays that way. Soon that chat goes from a quick question to talking about the project, which then turns into making plans that exclude other people. Small things that you think no one notices can’t be kept under wraps for long though. People sense when they’re being left out, and, soon, folks get territorial.

Micromanagement involves someone in leadership looking to stay on top of everything someone is doing, no matter how minute. Micromanagement starts as a leader trying to help. Suddenly, what was once an attempt to pitch in undermines people and kills their confidence. Their productivity may experience a short boost before bottoming out. Other people close to those being micromanaged will also lose confidence because they worry that the manager is coming for them next.

Both backchanneling and micromanaging are easy to identify. When there are different answers to the same question, that’s the result of backchanneling. When you see clones instead of people, it’s a sign of micromanagement. The good news is that once you see these trends emerging in your team, there are some concrete steps you can take to roll them back.

 

Moving From Secrecy to Privacy

If you identify some of these behaviors in yourself or your team, don’t fall into the trap of saying, “We’re stopping this today!” If the culture is already damaged, you have a high probability of making things worse. Your decisive action will cause everyone to fall back into the same old habits. People will see the new plan as micromanagement and find their cliques to discuss what they think is really going on. Instead of taking drastic action, then, it’s worth taking time to do an investigation. Here are two tools to do just that.

Retrospectives

A retrospective is a way for a team to publicly talk about the issues that they’re facing. Teams are probably already aware of project retrospectives, but the useful type here is the variant called team retrospectivesThese meetings are designed to give the team’s operational dynamics a postmortem. The first time you run one of these, you’ll notice surface problems, like teams having issues with each other, pop up. If you can, solve the simpler problems by making sure the right people talk to each other. Many issues can be handled with a conversation and a simple output, like “Next time we’ll talk with each other before we start work.” It’s important that once you get these things in motion, you ensure that the stuff you’ve discussed is actually happening. Follow-up is important for building trust. Eventually, you’ll see people bring up the deep-seated things that are making your culture secretive, and you’ll have a path to making it better.

One-on-Ones

One-on-ones are a tool to help managers understand their teams by talking to the individual members privately. Both the manager and team members should use this time to talk about what’s going on in the company at large and how that person can improve in terms of individual contribution. Remember, managers micromanage because they think exercising complete control over everything and everyone works. We know that it doesn’t; good managers trust their teams to get things done and ask questions of team members to understand motivations. Being in a place where you can talk directly and frankly builds trust and helps to make things better.

Neither of these methods works overnight. What they will do, over time, is build stronger connections between management and the teams/team members themselves. As a leader, you’ll be able to see problems and get to the root of them. Remember, if your culture isn’t trustworthy, fixing it will take time.

 

Give People Privacy

As a manager, you must create an environment where people can feel like they own their privacy.

Tools like retrospectives and one-on-ones will go a long way toward building trust throughout the company. Getting away from backchannels and micromanagement will get you closer to an environment in which people feel confident and will handle any problems as a team.

Feeling better about where we work often leads to productivity gains and a better bottom line. Take advantage of that by starting with these tools today.

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