On Leadership, Transparency and Breaching Confidentiality


What happens when a seasoned manager doesn’t know the difference between being transparent and breaching confidentiality?

In a nutshell, you get this: Distrust, demotivation, and an epic failure in leadership.

I am an Information Technology Manager at a Fortune 100 firm. We had made some significant changes in how our teams will get work done in 2015. I was asked to objectively facilitate the many hours of work needed to get to a new organizational model.

I was thrilled at the opportunity to lead change and impact results!

Organization over Ego

When the work started on our new initiative, I was very impressed on the amount of sharing and openness our managers had toward making a major shift in software development.

Dialogue was open and people were engaged. The goal would to be less hierarchical and become more of a flat management structure.

With this new initiative, the change required moving people to co-located teams. This resulted in 30% of the employees having a new manager. And with this amount of change, you can expect that things didn’t always go smoothly.

Ego Takes Over

Unfortunately, when plans were on the drawing board and people were moved around on paper to new positions and reporting structures, the defensive walls started to build and lines of territory started to be drawn.

The professional maturity of each manager started to become clear. Some showed signs of professional maturity and dealt with things well, even if they felt inside that they had a big (and unfair) challenge ahead of them. While many others acted the opposite.

They were much less willing to work for a bigger picture and took a selfish stance.

 Organizational Nightmare

When the discussion moved to the skills and performance of the managers, senior staff sequestered for confidential discussions. The results from this was that we constructed the first hierarchy for the new organization.

And with the historic attitudes reigning, the new org-chart looked exactly like the current one.

  • We had one manager of managers
  • Several first line managers
  • And half a dozen senior individual contributors reporting to the director

What an OD nightmare!

Many members believed we could not get the change needed if we didn’t change the management structure so a flat, balanced organization model was recommended.

Maintaining the Status Quo

Believing that he was just being transparent, the manager with the majority of the organization under his control gave access of the confidential organizational structure options being considered to his first line managers.

This manager was too busy persuading people that his way was the right way that he failed to hear the recommendation was to flatten the organization; including his team.

He also shared with one of his direct reports a discussion that occurred during a closed meeting whether the manager was ready for the more complex role including the name of the staff member who raised the concern.

This was not being transparent. This was breaching confidentiality!

The Let Down

When it came down to the final staff meeting to finalize the new organization, the leader, in order to minimize thrash and too much change, kept the unbalanced organization model.

When the announcements started to roll out, managers who had seen the flat model and thought they would now be reporting directly to the leader of the organization were blindsided. The manager who was told of the confidential discussion confronted the senior staff member.

This not only destroyed the trust. but it also damaged the trust of the senior staff member with his peer. He believed he could raise a concern in a closed staff meeting and not have his confidence breached.

The Moral of the Story

Leaders are always more successful when they are transparent with the people they lead. When they provide the reason for change whether it be due to cost cutting, greater efficiency, or because the industry has shifted and the organization needs to shift to remain successful.

However, breaching confidentiality to be transparent and not understanding the difference is a failure in leadership.

Sharing too much detail, including the details and hard discussions that have to happen for a decision to be made, is just poor judgement.

Leaders need to be aware of all of the conversations happening, not just focused on driving their own agenda. In this case, the miss and the failure resulted in several valuable people leaving the organization.

How important is transparency in your leadership practices and how do you groom your managers to clearly understand being transparent without breaching confidentiality?

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Cheryl Dilley is an Information Technology Manager at Intel Corporation
She is passionate about changing the game for women in the tech industry
Email | LinkedIn WebFacebook

Image Sources: mabio-int.com

L2L Contributing Author

1 Comment

  1. D.L.Clark on December 9, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    You win some, you lose some…

    The Harvard Business Review lauds the application of the Democratic Leadership style as one which contributes positively to the overall positive climate of the organization, which in turn impacts organizational effectiveness.

    The application of this leadership style is applicable in settings in which the team consists of SME’s from broad disciplines – for example, a healthcare manager would do well to be an attentive listener to her staff of clinical RN/MD’s in order to make sound decisions for the organization. The Democratic style asks “What do you think?” of its SME’s before making an ultimate decision. As an outsider it seems to me that’s what was at play here in the highly technical arena of an IT Fortune 100 company when the senior manager held his confidential meeting with his subordinate managers.

    Your rhetoric of ‘breached confidentiality’ seems a bit charged in my opinion when the proposals were all pre-decisional and detailed information about managerial performance, though sensitive, is an essential part of decision making. No doubt turf wars erupted as stakeholders learned of proposed changes and your hard work and excellent ideas might have been bullied by this Machiavellian behavior.

    What Machiavelli teaches us is that you can only expect luke warm support from those who would benefit from change, and staunch defiance for those who would be the losers. Future project success may require clever handling of those who would be dispossessed of their kingdoms!

    In summary, you state that an organization gets an environment of “distrust, demotivation, and an epic failure in leadership” when leadership confuses transparency with confidentiality. Your team proposed an organizational restructuring that, right or wrong, caused some waves during the planning phase. During the approval process the decision-maker used a democratic leadership style, listening to inputs from his subordinate managers, sharing detailed information with them in the process. In the end it wasn’t approved.

    Instead of hurt feelings and accusatory rhetoric, you might spend some time studying two points:

    1) How you will approach this scenario differently in the future, with a focus on that obstinate bunch with bruised egos
    2) What factors influenced from stakeholders on high might have influenced the manager’s decision

    This approach is a bit more transparent in nature, strengthens communication, and demonstrates a team ethic.