Confidentiality – the enemy of trust?

Working in some of the major global organisations, I have noticed how highly confidentiality is prized.  The stated aim is to protect people so that they will not be hurt.  When I was working at Ernst & Young I was always uncomfortable with this approach to confidentiality.  My own background was that I had been trained by my teacher Chrissy in an environment where everyone’s most intimate problems and difficulties were actively shared with others as learning.  I noticed that while this was difficult at times, it created the opposite effect from that which the proponents of confidentiality suggested.  We were very open with each other because we had nothing to hide, since we already knew each others most intimate secrets.  Somehow this lack of confidentiality created more trust not less.  Since everyone knew everything there was little to mistrust each other over (it came up at times of course but then it was shared and resolved very openly with everyone knowing about it!).

I work as a coach in business and in this environment, most coaches put forward confidentiality as essential, and indeed something fundamentally critical to their role and to the relationships they build. Indeed they see it as a positive virtue.  When I worked at Ernst & Young as part of the Human Resources function, confidentiality was seen as very important for the HR function.  Yet a curious phenomenon took place.  Since HR people were by their nature very curious and interested in people, it was almost impossible for them not to share the fascinating information they were privy to.  I also began to notice that the more confidential things were kept (to protect people and prevent harmful gossip) the more gossip and harmful speculation there was.  Confidentiality was achieving the opposite of its stated aim.  My own approach in coaching people within the organisation was to be clear that I would not keep the conversations with them confidential since it was more valuable for me to discuss with other people and get their perspective on the challenges the individual faced.  I did, however, tell them that they could trust me completely to have their best interests at heart and to be sensitive.  When it came to 360 degree feedback I was expecting to score poorly for confidentiality but everyone had scored me 5 out of 5.  I knew I wasn’t at all confidential in my approach but everyone thought I was.

I started as a governor of Wynstones school some 13 years ago amid a regime of absolute confidentiality.  The reason given for this was that it was imperative in order for the staff to trust the governors.  Yet the odd thing was that this had been in place for some time and there was the opposite; a climate of mistrust.  The other major problem the school faced was the terrible car park gossip.  Various bans and prohibitions on gossip had been put out but with little impact, indeed it had been exacerbated.  Given this, I set about trying to eradicate the roots of gossip and to talk to everyone openly about the real issues and crises that were taking place in the school, particularly the sensitive issues.  What I noticed was that where people did not know something they naturally were intrigued and they naturally speculated to try to fill the gap.  Some people were horrified and I came in for some flack, but as we persevered the gossip cleared up and the level of trust between the governors and staff improved significantly to the point now where there is an atmosphere of phenomenal mutual trust.

I have noticed the same phenomenon in my coaching work.  I have come in for some flack at times but I realise that the confidential information people want to prevent others knowing, they generally know anyway and that often the judgements and speculation where it isn’t known are worse than the truth.  In my own circle, I am conscious that everyone, including the individual involved, is more comfortable when the truth is on the table, no matter how unpalatable.  What seems to be worse is the paranoia that we experience in trying to control and prevent this.  I have also noticed that this information is far less charged when you don’t try to prevent it being known.  On programmes, all good trainers/facilitators say that “Chatham House Rules” or “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” applies and no-one must share anything outside the programme.  Whenever I hear this, it strikes me that there is a trade off between confidentiality and learning.  The greater the confidentiality the lower the learning because nothing of any real depth or value can be shared with others.  On my programmes I start the other way round with the premise that everything is open but I give people the option to let others know if something is sensitive and they would like people to be careful in how they share it.  Having run progammes for eight years, I notice there has never been an issue and what’s more I can think of only a handful of examples where people have requested the sensitivity of others.

What is interesting for me here is that trust is really about openness.  Sadly you can’t get to trust through witholding information it only breeds further distrust.  What we all really want in our hearts is to be completely free and open (the relationships where we can be are the ones we value most).  We want to be accepted for who we really are, not having to keep up a front.  Yet we do not yet seem to realise that the way to do this is to be free and open.  I suspect that the real issue is power not trust.  I think coaches and psychologists love to focus on confidentiality as a great virtue because it is a front for power.  Only they know or can be trusted, but of course they trap the individual by re-inforcing the sense that the personal information they are sharing is dangerous and can only be shared carefully in certain circumstances with certain people thus fostering the very paranoia and mistrust which the individual is often caught by.  Once you hear that everyone else fears the same things as you; their inadequacies, their paranoia, their normal dysfunctional personalities, it loses all its power and people feel released and relieved and laugh together.  Of course, the other paradox is that if we are free and open and we know everyone will hear what we say, we have to choose our words much more carefully.  When people are gossiping (having held the other to secrecy) they are often unbelievably callous and judgemental.  Can we learn this one and apply it collectively?  I wonder what the media and MI6 would look like if we did?


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