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Leadership & Confidentiality: Should You Keep a Secret?

For as long as I’ve been in the professional world, confidentiality has been a tenet by which I’ve worked. It was something I learned early on – when I first started as a volunteer in the arena of social services. We were all taught the importance – and necessity – of confidentiality, and what it meant for the safety of those whom we served.

The essence of confidentiality is this: there’s some information – usually personal in nature – that is nobody’s business outside of the immediate person or people involved. The concept of holding things in confidence is powerfully engrained in many fields and organizations.

Sometimes, the concept of confidentiality gets confused with the notion of secrecy. Believe it or not, they are not the same thing. Understanding the difference is important, if we are going to lead with integrity.

Here’s how I’ve come to distinguish the two, in practical terms: a secret is information I have that another person should know, but I’m withholding, for whatever reason. Perhaps I’ve been asked to withhold it; or perhaps I’m not sure who to share it with. Or maybe I’m scared to share it. Regardless of the reason, there’s an awareness that this information isn’t mine to hold exclusively, but I’m doing it anyway. Sometimes, a secret can be about “good” things – a surprise party, for example. Sometimes, secrets are about hurtful or damaging things. And sometimes, they’re about things in between.

Confidentiality, however, is about privacy. It’s information that isn’t actually anyone else’s business. Another person having the information isn’t going to be helpful, and isn’t necessary to help facilitate decisions. That’s not to say that the information wouldn’t impact decisions; it might. It’s not to say that folks wouldn’t like to know the information; many likely would (everyone likes to feel “in the know”). However, the information isn’t mine to share. Things that are held in confidence are often of a highly personal nature – personal challenges, struggles, illnesses, perhaps.

When folks share information and ask it to be held in confidence, there’s usually an awareness that YOU need to be aware of this, but nobody else does. Because of your relationship to me, for example, I might share a personal struggle – in confidence – so that I can call on you for help. But that doesn’t mean I want everyone else to know.

In the realm of leadership, understanding the difference between confidentiality (otherwise known as privacy) and secrecy is important. Confidentiality is about respecting another person’s information; secrecy is about the withholding of information. When we withhold information, it’s usually with the awareness that there’s a cost involved.

Admittedly, discerning the line between confidentiality and secrecy can be tricky. Some of the key questions to ask that can help us distinguish between the two concepts are these:

  • Is the information mine to share? If not, then it’s something to be held in confidence – it's private.
  • Why are you sharing the information? Using the THINK formula can be helpful here – is the information
  • True?
  • Helpful?
  • Inspiring (this may not be quite as relevant in this context!)?
  • Necessary?
  • Kind?

Bottom-line: in the realm of leadership, one is often privy to a lot of information. In the name of transparency, it can be tempting to share it all. This isn’t helpful. When it comes to information-sharing, discretion is the better part of valour – and holding things in confidence is a vital piece of that discretion. Learning to distinguish between information that’s confidential and information that’s secret will help you to lead with grace.

Tracy Harvie