How Important is Discretion?

'A shut mouth catches no flies'

The controversy surrounding WikiLeaks is interesting from a management consulting perspective. This is quite apart from the charges of sexual impropriety against its founder, Julian Assange. I have absolutely no idea of the veracity of the charges leveled by the Swedish authorities (conspiracy theorists are having a field day on this one). But, for the moment, let’s consider the wider issue. Is secrecy a good thing?

Secrecy = Good: Most people would take the view that secrecy is a good thing. To frame this in a different way, most people would take the view that being totally ‘open’ is a bad thing. Consider an imaginary conversation:

“I think I’m losing some hair”:
“I agree. You look like a billiard ball with added age lines”.

In normal social convention, few people would argue for 100% openness. It would bring the world, as we know it, to a full stop. So, if this is a bad thing in social convention, is total openness a good thing in relation to business or politics? The short answer is that it isn’t. I’m making a distinction here between secrecy as it applies to sensitive business information and the idea of whistleblowing – when someone takes a view that a particular practice is not Kosher – and needs to be communicated externally.

Discretion = Good: While the stakes may be somewhat lower, the same basic point applies to management consulting. Discussing client projects with other clients or disclosing sensitive information – unless you have permission from the client to do this – are both no no’s. Not only is this ethically sound, it also makes good business sense. If you are indiscreet with ‘Client A’, they will feel that you will be indiscreet about them with Client B.

Close Shave: A couple of weeks back I was in the Grafton Barbers (IFSC). I was chatting away to the barber about emerging bands (he is a music buff). He was keen to know about consulting projects Tandem Consulting are currently engaged in. I did not want to discuss this and was trying to steer the conversation onto safer ground. We danced around the topic a bit (generally I don’t like being rude to a guy who has an open razor at my throat). Eventually he gave up and we went back to rock n’ roll.

By sheer coincidence it turned out that the guy having his hair cut right next to me was the brother of a CEO who I was working for – probably our most important client. He’d been listening to the conversation and introduced himself.

Big Village: Dublin is a big village. A couple of years back I had a very similar experience when coaching a senior executive for a CEO role. I was having lunch in a restaurant in Baggot Street while the guy at the next table was loudly telling his friend exactly how he was coaching my candidates opponent (his guy actually got the job, so perhaps he was right to be boastful).

So, there you go. You just don’t know who is sitting beside you. Discretion is the better part of valor. If you’re not sure, shut up. Listen to what your mother used to say: “A shut mouth catches no flies”.

(mumbled goodbye)

Paul Mooney


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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