The pitfalls of confidentiality

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Annette Clancy’s recent post on the pitfalls of confidentiality in client relationships prompted her Matt Moore and me to record a podcast chat about it this afternoon.

Click to Listen Download the Podcast – 29m – MP3 (9 MB)

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Annette has posted it on her blog and I’m repeating here for regular listeners.

Annette’s done some good show notes which I’m just copying and pasting them here to save time. Obviously these are a rough guide so don’t take them too literally.

Thanks to Annette and Matt for a good conversation.

Disclaimer: These are a rough summary of the conversation accompanied by flexible/rough timings.

0.0 Annette

How important is confidentiality at work? and how much of my product offering as a consultant is the guarantee that whatever is told to me will be held in confidence? Are consultants professional secret keepers? and how much of our work is containing and sanitising misdemeanours offering them back as palatable organisational learnings? What or whom are we minding?


How important is confidentiality at work?

0.50 Johnnie

It’s ‘very important’. It means different things to different people at different times – is it a way of addressing status – I had to sign an NDA etc. Sometimes it’s a status play. It is a way of entrapping the other person in something – am I doing you a favour or am I inviting you into a trap? It’s complex isn’t it?

2.08 Annette

How much of the conversation around confidentiality is in fact a seduction – around secrets?

2.18 Matt

One way of taking someone into your confidence is to offer them a secret and that has all kinds of levels and layers – does it happen once? Several times? And what happens when you break that trust?

Matt talks about his role as an internal consultant and how people entrust him with their secrets and the complexity of the messages and seductions contained within those secrets.

5.18 Annette

Annette notes that both Matt and Johnnie are talking about ‘intimacy’ and asks how we set up the conditions for that to take place. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips talks about how we can set up the conditions for romance but there’s no guarantee that romance will happen – what kinds of ploys do Matt and Johnnie use to set up the romantic conditions for intimacy in the workplace?

6.32 Johnnie

Johnnie professes his interest in intimacy and his interest in web tools which foster intimacy.

Johnnie talks about the shift from confidentiality as control to a more open sharing of information via Open Space and other similar processes. He talks about relinquishing his role as ‘consultant confessor’ which has become an uncomfortable role. Am I getting in the way by holding a secret?

9.19 Annette

What burden is placed on someone designated as ‘knowledge manager’ to manage hidden knowledge – how does Matt manage the externalised ‘known knowledge’ with the internalised ‘unknown’?

9.41 Matt

Matt admits to being a hypocrite! The official versus the ‘real’ version of events often conflict. Matt then goes on to say how hypocrisy works in practice – including sanitising stories; the pleasure of being taken into someone’s confidence; the manufacture of intimacy and how hypocrisy functions as a social lubrication.

13.13 Annette

Consultants are also politicians in organisations and are we talking here about the context we create (or wish to create) rather than the content of what people are saying?

13.40 Johnnie

Creating explicitly ‘confident’ scenarios aren’t particularly enjoyable and neither do they work. Johnnie talks about how this works in practice.

15.43 Annette

There is often an assumption that the stories revealed in confidence have more truth than those revealed in public and also we are not capable of hearing or speaking truth in organisations. Does being an internal consultant add another layer to that mix?

16.23 Matt

Openness versus closedness is an interesting concept – we need to keep some things private. Matt is often asked to take sides – to join a tribe – and secrets are a way of extending this invitation. Matt talks about respecting the invitation while not getting pulled in..

19.15 Annette

Scepticism is useful – our relationship with secrets and confidences is influenced by splits good/bad; useful/unhelpful – can we strike a balance between them? Respecting what this intervention has to offer for this system?

20.12 Johnnie

Explicit confidentiality agreements can serve to shut down the sharing of confidences and sensitive information – the opposite is often the case. The paradox here is that less is shared when the discussion is explicit – when it becomes ritualised it becomes less effective. Johnnie talks about the difference between hard and soft trust.

22.07 Annette

There is a dance in negotiating confidence – in removing that dance we give a message that there is apart of me or thoughts I want to share that are unacceptable.

22.48 Johnnie

Johnnie asks about what that negotiation means – is it explicit? Is it implicit? What does it look like?

23.21 Annette

Annette talks about unconscious and non verbal negotiations that invite revelation – seeking permission to inquire about someone’s personal story.

23.50 Matt

We prefer to have soft trust – informal trust but we fall back on hard trust and the rules when that isn’t guaranteed and when there are issues of power and status at play. If you are genuinely sharing yourself you make yourself vulnerable and organisations are treacherous places…

25.07 Johnnie

Perhaps it’s our job to be the ones who are willing to be vulnerable – it’s easy to revert to rules but it’s useful to talk about our own vulnerabilities as it gives permission to those we work with to talk about theirs.

26.16 Annette

We have all kinds of things in our consultancy toolkits but feelings are the primary ones that I draw on

26.30 Johnnie

Suggests pausing the conversation there for now..

27.07 Annette

Thanks to Matt and Johnnie for sharing their thoughts.


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