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See Something, Say Something

January 18, 2019

A very interesting article in Harvard Business Review written by two University of Maryland researchers cites three large studies done with diverse groups of people on why companies have "open secrets." I encourage you to read the full article [https://hbr.org/2019/01/why-open-secrets-exist-in-organizations]. My takeaways are related to different kinds of open secrets, employee behavior, and leadership.

 An open secret is one that everyone knows but no one talks about. Every organization has them. Sometimes it's that a manager behaves abusively or that an employee is running a side business from work. It becomes common knowledge, but no one will bring it up to someone who can do something about it. Worse, when a mid-level manager or executive is abusive, it's common that everyone below that person knows about it but no one will bring it forward. Why?

 

The Dilution Effect

 

In this HBR article, the authors' research shows that there's a dilution effect that occurs. In one study, people were told about a problem. Some participants believed they were the only ones who knew and others believed that everyone knew. Those who believed they were the only ones who knew were 2.5 times more likely to address the issue than those who thought everyone knew.

 

How does this apply to you and your leadership? Think about things you know are open secrets. Have you stood on the sidelines watching, assuming (or hoping) someone else would raise the issue? Now that you know that open secrets don't get addressed, would you consider taking action? Perhaps if we phrased it differently. If you knew you were the only one likely to take action, would you? Open secrets need a champion, that means assuming no one else will take up the cause.

 

Applies to Open Secrets and Information Security
 

In addition, think about phishing emails or cyber security incidents or system misconfigurations. If people believe everyone knows, no one will take action. Thus, the phrase "if you see something, say something." Don't assume just because others know, someone else will take action. In fact, given the HBR article, assume just the opposite. The more people who know, the less likely it is the problem will be addressed. A very counter-intuitive notion, but important to understand as a leader.

 

What can you do as a leader? Encourage and reward people who speak up, even if "everyone already knows." Reward those who are brave enough to speak up even when the tide seems to be flowing against them. To quote the article:

 

"Importantly, the bystander effect occurs because the work culture of many organizations encourages passing the buck and blending into the crowd rather than individual responsibility. Employees are afraid of standing up and speaking truth to power. Managers who explicitly reward rather than punish acts of individual courage can get their employees off the sidelines to act as engaged citizens at the workplace."

[Source: https://hbr.org/2019/01/why-open-secrets-exist-in-organizations]

 

Of course, some open secrets are so toxic, no one wants to address them and unless you have the authority and ability to address it, you may think twice. I'm not encouraging you to go rushing into the fire and flame out your career. Not at all. However, often there are open secrets and security issues that you can address, that won't kill your career and if handled well, could enhance your career through building your reputation as a leader willing to take on tough challenges.

 

Something to consider.

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