I was recently in a meeting with a very good client; we have an open, trusting relationship. Things got a little sticky though when, without thinking about it, my client disclosed what was a confidential piece of information about a mutual colleague. It was just a sentence in a bigger conversation. As he reached the end of his sentence, his pace slowed, his eyes widened, and both of us were sucking in our breaths as we realised what was happening.

‘Uh oh’ he said, ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’ ‘Uh oh,’ I said, ‘I didn’t want to hear that.’ He said, ‘you must not tell X, or repeat that to anyone.’ I said, ‘I will not tell X or repeat that to anyone. You can trust me to keep that to myself.’

We went on to talk about other things, and I paid it no further attention. Until about a week later when I was doing some circle coaching with a new group of leaders.

How challenging it is to keep information confidential

The big issue, as we were setting the group up for psychological safety, was how challenging it was to keep information confidential in the organisation. This was a peer group of senior leaders who would be discussing their leadership challenges, and being able to do so in a safe environment was obviously vital.

There ensued a very interesting conversation about just how challenging it is to keep information confidential. Even when you have the best of intentions. Even when you think you are keeping information private, it seems to leak out.

One of the group made the confronting observation this happens because people do share information even when they know it should be kept confidential.

My own earlier conversation was actually much more common than we think.

We often think that psychological safety is eroded by people with ill-will or outright bad intentions. Instead, perhaps these small disclosures we make, to the people we trust, are as damaging.

Where we have a generally trusting relationship with another person, we may be more likely to disclose all kinds of information. The reciprocity that fuels trusting relationships may mean that there’s an awful lot more of this kind of leakage happening than we realise. We exchange private information, we fuel the relationship by sharing special information, and when we do this we prove or maintain our trust in each other.

How to make a bigger contribution to your safety climate

This is a switch that’s relatively easy to flick. If we can more consciously make the distinction between trusting the person and the information we choose to share, we can make a bigger contribution to the psychological climate we inhabit. Trusting the person doesn’t mean we trust them with anything, such as information that’s been shared in confidence. We can build our relationship capital in other ways.

CEOs and executive teams have significant responsibility for the oversight of psychological safety climate for the organisation, and team and project leaders bear the brunt of the responsibility for the climate of the teams they lead.

Here’s one of the critical roles that all individuals can play: and that is to take more care with private information, with information that is shared in confidence, and keep the confidence. Even where you trust another person implicitly.

That’s a big, better part to play in maintaining a safe climate.


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