Audit your secrets

March 12, 2009

Allison O’Neill, author of The Boss Benchmark, joins me today as a guest blogger with a very timely article on keeping secrets at work.

Allison is an expert on bosses. She is the New Zealand-based author of The Boss Benchmark – a book about how to be an amazing boss, endorsed by high profile worldwide CEO’s. You can download the first few chapters free (and purchase a hardcopy or e-version) at her website.

Allison blogs regularly on the topic of being a boss and would love to hear any questions, ideas or feedback you have about this article. Start a conversation here, or email Allison.


Why you should audit the secrets you keep from your staff

In the past when there were stiff hierarchies there were probably lots of things management knew that staff did not. Perhaps management thought staff were not important enough to be told many things. The futuristic workplace though, has an ‘all in’ attitude — anything management knows staff should too. Such open attitudes are positively overhauling our workplace cultures. It shows staff they are respected and trusted and it increases engagement. Most places want to do away with the ‘them vs. us’ of management and staff. It is not a helpful vibe, and should have been given the boot a long time ago.

Some bosses use secrets simply to make themselves feel awesome. Anyone who keeps secrets purely to make themselves feel superior is pathetic — but they do exist. It is impossible for a team to unite and truly function as a ‘team’ under those conditions. I knew of a boss that wanted to show his team he had ‘the power’ so staged fake job interviews to frighten the staff that were on thin ice. Its like he was trying to scare them into performing better — or they’d be replaced. Mind games like this should have absolutely no place at work. Its not healthy — the boss is unfit to be a boss and it makes the staff live in fear. What a gross environment!

‘Secrets’ you shouldn’t share

If a staff member shares things with you in confidence they should of course be kept private. There are many instances where an employee needs to inform a boss about something happening in their lives that may affect their work, but that does not mean everyone else should know too. Some examples:

  • They have a health problem they are managing privately.
  • They are separating from their partner and wish it to be private.
  • They need time off for a mental health issue.

Also, in businesses where husband and wife owners work together, should they have marriage problems it can affect the entire business and team. Personal problems should be kept out of work –- if not, you will really impact your staff members and their work (often even if you think you aren’t). If it has affected the team already, apologize and inform them you will be keeping work and private lives separate from now on. If you do end up separating, draw up some rules to help you manage your work relationship and be open about what is going on with the team. Don’t leave them to guess, wonder or gossip.

‘Secrets’ you should share

I know a boss that made a huge mistake by listing the business for sale without telling the staff. The staff saw the ad when reading the paper on Saturday morning. They were very annoyed that the boss had been feeding them lies about “everything being fine”. Instead of feeling embarrassed about having to sell up, the boss should have been open and included the staff in this process honestly. Instead the culture was tense and disconnected while the sale went through. The boss didn’t regain the trust or respect of the team.

In the past a lot of businesses kept financial details secret from staff –- as if it was none of their business or they didn’t need to know. Businesses that do share such information are often better off. One great reason to share is the clarification about how much profit the owners really do pocket each year. Some staff believe it to be gazillions, which is why they get so annoyed at their wage which they may feel is miserable. Often when all the financial details are on the table they see they are paid very fairly and the boss doesn’t take home four million each week!

You should share things like:

  • If there is a drop in sales tell the team -– don’t just keep it within the boardroom.
  • Tell everyone what the high margin products are so they can focus on selling those items.
  • If there are financial difficulties discuss it with everyone and pen a survival plan together — especially since staff know the customers much better than management does. Their contribution will be very valuable.

It is important to tell staff margin details because if they are earning commissions on each item, they can sometimes assume you are pocketing a lot more from their great sales work than the miserable commission you are paying.

Audit your secrets

  1. Ponder everything management knows but the staff do not.
  2. Figure out why these things are not public knowledge amongst the team.
  3. Identify at what cost the secrets are being kept.
  4. List the pros and cons of staff knowing (more often than not, the honesty is of higher value than any negative that may come from sharing).
  5. Come clean with your secrets and tell the team that management intend on being more open about such things in the future.

Involving staff in these kind of ‘secrets’ is not rocket science –- they are stakeholders, after all. Gone are the days when the boss knew lots of inside secrets and the staff were clueless — often wandering aimlessly around scratching their heads. The workplace of the future is without old-fashioned hierarchies and is full of openness, honesty and much bigger success.