A recent New York Times article reported that former Exxon Mobile CEO and now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “keeps a low profile.” The conjecture was that Tillerson’s “cloak of invisibility” indicated being out of 45’s inner circle, or, conversely, it demonstrated a “highly strategic” and consistent element of Tillerson’s leadership style (putting things in place before making a big splash).
During the never-ending run-up to this election and now the first 100 days of public discourse, I’ve found myself reflecting on this notion of “facts and alternative facts,” “noise,” “transparency,” “privilege,” “leaks” and the power of silence. Especially silence as it relates to transparency and privacy in business and among business leaders.
Daily we are assailed with breaking news! News that’s often rehashed through some talking head or thrown at us by media outlets eager to fill the vacuum created by the last sound bite—or tweet. This “noise” becomes deafening when filtered and amplified by 1.8 billion Facebook users, who then disseminate their opinions on the latest noise (along with pictures of whatever it is they most recently ate).
Distressingly, I have experienced these same scenarios and behaviors within the inner workings of top teams and organizations with which I work. This oversharing, lack of boundaries and assaults on privacy and silence have become just as common in these more gated environments as they are on crowded subway cars, in movie lines and in airport lounges, where people engage in what should otherwise be confidential business or intimate personal conversations on their cellphones. I assume they believe they are in a zone of privacy provided by some invisible red phone booth with the door tightly shut.
As an attorney, consultant and leader, I remain exceedingly sensitive to both the privilege and responsibility that emanates from one’s collection and use of confidential disclosures (as well as dialogues with clients, associates, employees and constituents).
Information sharing—or withholding—is power. So when do we disclose authentically, or withhold purposefully, to prevent harm? How do we strike a balance between the need to know, transparency, and our own need for silence, solitude and claiming a personal and professional zone of privacy? The answer is different for each of us, and is based on our nature and circumstance.
1. Consider McKinsey’s perspective on the upside and dark side of leadership transparency in business.
People, employees, constituents often say they want to be involved in every decision. But do they really? Because when it comes down to it, that means they will then be compelled to share in the accountability that that transparency brings.
In the February 2017 McKinsey Quarterly article, “The Dark Side of Transparency,” authors Julian Birkinshaw and Dan Cable note the need among many executives to “get smarter” about when to share versus when to withhold information—to enjoy the benefits of transparency while avoiding the unintended consequences. They also encourage engaging and empowering a company’s front line with information but note that too much information can overload and “legitimize” endless debate and second guessing of executive decision making, and slow or derail the whole process when it comes to execution.
Likewise, too early visibility may stifle innovation and creativity when naysayers begin to weigh in and kill the prototype before it ever has a chance to evolve.
2. Consider Hay Group’s perspective and research on clarity as a primary agent of personal engagement, leading to increased discretionary performance and business performance.
While ambiguity appears to be today’s cultural norm, ambiguity can often signal change and emerging possibilities; and too much ambiguity or unaddressed ambiguity may lead to increasing frustration, mistrust, unnecessary competition, redundancy of work effort and loss of discretionary performance.
The challenge for leaders is to determine what they can be clear about and how best to communicate their message. Hay Group research, conducted through their Organizational Climate Survey, found that of all six climate dimensions, clarity remains the most important dimension of a positive work, yet the most difficult to sustain at a high level.
Clarity helps everyone know where they fit, what is expected of them and how those expectations relate to the overall direction of the organization. But to sustain clarity, employees find there must be consistent high quality discussions and decisiveness (not shifting priorities) about what the direction of the company is—and just as importantly, what it is not. This clarity must also be relayed in meaningful ways that connect people with appropriate and reliable information.
Lack of clarity creates a vacuum, one that’s soon filled with misinformation—or what’s now come to be defined as “alternative facts.” These alternative facts, if not clarified with appropriate information and evidence-based facts, with the help of social media, can be swiftly mainstreamed, normalized and part of your organizational story line. Likewise, it is as crucial to truthfully acknowledge when simply given the reality of the situation is “it is what it is” and not possible or appropriate to give all the people the clarity they desire.
3. Consider that authentic temperament and truth telling requires intentional periods of solitude and mindful reflection.
So here comes the tough, more personal part of this issue. In meetings when everyone feels compelled to weigh in and express an opinion (informed or not), I am reminded of the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi, someone known for speaking truth to power, who advised people to “speak only if it improves the silence.”
The ability to manage one’s ego and hold one’s power while remaining fully present (yet silent) at times of discord comes from a deeper, more authentic inner space. It is a space cultivated through solitude and mindful discerning of one’s own deeper intent and truth. Weighing in from this place often carries a greater impact, too, one devoid of self-interest and fear of what others might think. This moment of filtering one’s desire to speak or remain silent is what I call strategic silence. And creating space for solitude means claiming your own personal zone of privacy, whether it’s a year’s sabbatical, a pre-meeting reflective walk or a five-minute reprieve from the noise of the day.
4. Consider John O’Donohue’s perspective found in his Anam Cara on “Ascetic Solitude.”
“Ascetic Solitude is difficult. You withdraw from the world to get a clearer glimpse of who you are, what you are doing and where life is taking you,” writes O’Donohue. “There is an incredibly subtle and powerfully calculating industry of modern dislocation, where that which is deep and lives in the silence within us is completely ignored. The surfaces of our minds continue to be seduced by the power of (outside) images. This outer exile really impoverishes us.”
In concluding, I leave you with a final thought from the late Theologian Henri Nouwen. It is his image of controlling your own drawbridge. He states that, “you must decide to whom and when you give access to your interior life,” and cautions us to “never allow yourself to become public property, where anyone can walk in and out at will.”
Not bad advice when thinking about claiming your own zone of privacy—as well as setting the privacy setting on your Facebook page. Or holding back on that next policy-setting tweet.