Making and keeping promises is one way we build trust with each other (emphasis on the keeping part). There may come a time in your management when an employee asks you to keep a secret. Often this is for something that isn’t particularly delicate – an idea, a new process, office gossip. There is one promise of confidence you should not make, and it usually starts with a question like this:
I need to tell you something. Will you promise to keep this between us and not involve anyone else?
Do not make this promise. There is a possible risk to the organization, the employee and yourself suggested within the framework of the request and a wise manager threads carefully. I have had this request posed to me at least three times in my career. Keeping with the importance of clarity in all communications here is how I responded:
I appreciate your coming to me. As a manager in the organization, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization and everyone who works in it, including you. If you tell me something that requires me to violate that responsibility, I cannot promise to do that. I can promise to stand by you for as long or as much as you need or the situation allows. So, with that said, do you want to tell me what’s going on? I’m here.
Of the three times, only one person declined to move forward with the conversation. And in one case, the HR Department did become involved in addressing a harassment charge against another team member.
Here’s why I believe that statement works:
- It opens and closes with appreciation and empathy.
- It clarifies that my role does not provide complete freedom of choice as I may be bound by contract or the law.
- It’s clear that I will not violate the core requirements of my role.
- It clarifies that the responsibilities of my role require protecting the organization and everyone inside it, including them.
- It’s honest about the possible outcomes.
- It promises to be a support moving forward which is important since they already chose me for that role.
- It gives them a choice to move forward or not. Having some choice over what happens is the reason why they asked for my confidence to start.
The delivery is everything, of course, but the message is always the same. And it’s always crystal clear.
Breaking a promise damages trust and if someone is dealing with a traumatic situation, the last thing they need is to ask for your trust only to have you violate it.
Make promises you have every intention *and* ability to keep. Avoid making ones you cannot but be clear about that fact. That’s how highly valued managers lead their teams.