Secrets makes fools of us. Philip Larkin wrote in his poem The Old Fools of “Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power, Of choosing gone.” If we become aware of a secret, the frequent response is to feel betrayed, we both castigate ourselves for being blind fools and lose trust in those that connived and controlled us. Some part of us dies,“at death you break up: the bits that were you, Start speeding away from each other for ever,” as Larkin puts it. A secret revealed at work, or in a relationship fires the impulse to speed away from each other. Motivating and engaging it is not.
Most secrets are the result of cowardice and incompetence. Managers fear how their staff might react if the information is shared. They are insecure in their belief that they are capable of managing the reaction.
They rationalise in self-serving ways that their staff do not need to know, or they adopt a patronising stance that their staff cannot handle the truth. Or they are lazy and do not believe their staff are deserving of the effort of an explanation.
A culture of secrecy is addictive. Getting away with one secret for long enough yields rewards of a compliant staff. Keeping the second secret causes less rumination and, before long, secrecy becomes the default management approach. Turn out the lights, keep them in the dark, see the staff as undeserving fools.
Most of us can accept secrets that genuinely protect privacy, dignity, commercial interest or personal or national security. The problem in workplaces is, too often secrets become a tool of management and not a necessary and carefully considered exception. It’s time management left the dark ages.