Why do organizations have open secrets?

Everyone sees something, but no one says anything—that's the bystander effect. And it's damaging your organizational culture.
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Secret ingredient in open source


The five characteristics of an open organization must work together to ensure healthy and happy communities inside our organizations. Even the most transparent teams, departments, and organizations require equal doses of additional open principles—like inclusivity and collaboration—to avoid dysfunction.

The "open secrets" phenomenon illustrates the limitations of transparency when unaccompanied by additional open values. A recent article in Harvard Business Review explored the way certain organizational issues—widely apparent but seemingly impossible to solve—lead to discomfort in the workforce. Authors Insiya Hussain and Subra Tangirala performed a number of studies, and found that the more people in an organization who knew about a particular "secret," be it a software bug or a personnel issue, the less likely any one person would be to report the issue or otherwise do something about it.

Hussain and Tangirala explain that so-called "open secrets" are the result of a bystander effect, which comes into play when people think, "Well, if everyone knows, surely I don't need to be the one to point it out." The authors mention several causes of this behavior, but let's take a closer look at why open secrets might be circulating in your organization—with an eye on what an open leader might do to create a safe space for whistleblowing.

1. Fear

People don't want to complain about a known problem only to have their complaint be the one that initiates the quality assurance, integrity, or redress process. What if new information emerges that makes their report irrelevant? What if they are simply wrong?

At the root of all bystander behavior is fear—fear of repercussions, fear of losing reputation or face, or fear that the very thing you've stood up against turns out to be a non-issue for everyone else. Going on record as "the one who reported" carries with it a reputational risk that is very intimidating.

The first step to ensuring that your colleagues report malicious behavior, code, or whatever needs reporting is to create a fear-free workplace. We're inundated with the idea that making a mistake is bad or wrong. We're taught that we have to "protect" our reputations. However, the qualities of a good and moral character are always subjective.

Tip for leaders: Reward courage and strength every time you see it, regardless of whether you deem it "necessary." For example, if in a meeting where everyone except one person agrees on something, spend time on that person's concerns. Be patient and kind in helping that person change their mind, and be open minded about that person being able to change yours. Brains work in different ways; never forget that one person might have a perspective that changes the lay of the land.

2. Policies

Usually, complaint procedures and policies are designed to ensure fairness towards all parties involved in the complaint. Discouraging false reporting and ensuring such fairness in situations like these is certainly a good idea. But policies might actually deter people from standing up—because a victim might be discouraged from reporting an experience if the formal policy for reporting doesn't make them feel protected. Standing up to someone in a position of power and saying "Your behavior is horrid, and I'm not going to take it" isn't easy for anyone, but it's particularly difficult for marginalized groups.

The "open secrets" phenomenon illustrates the limitations of transparency when unaccompanied by additional open values.

To ensure fairness to all parties, we need to adjust for victims. As part of making the decision to file a report, a victim will be dealing with a variety of internal fears. They'll wonder what might happen to their self-worth if they're put in a situation where they have to talk to someone about their experience. They'll wonder if they'll be treated differently if they're the one who stands up, and how that will affect their future working environments and relationships. Especially in a situation involving an open secret, asking a victim to be strong is asking them to have to trust that numerous other people will back them up. This fear shouldn't be part of their workplace experience; it's just not fair.

Remember that if one feels responsible for a problem (e.g., "Crap, that's my code that's bringing down the whole server!"), then that person might feel fear at pointing out the mistake. The important thing is dealing with the situation, not finding someone to blame. Policies that make people feel personally protected—no matter what the situation—are absolutely integral to ensuring the organization deals with open secrets.

Tip for leaders: Make sure your team's or organization's policy regarding complaints makes anonymous reporting possible. Asking a victim to "go on record" puts them in the position of having to defend their perspective. If they feel they're the victim of harassment, they're feeling as if they are harassed and being asked to defend their experience. This means they're doing double the work of the perpetrator, who only has to defend themselves.

3. Marginalization

Women, LGBTQ people, racial minorities, people with physical disabilities, people who are neuro-atypical, and other marginalized groups often find themselves in positions that them feel routinely dismissed, disempowered, disrespected—and generally dissed. These feelings are valid (and shouldn't be too surprising to anyone who has spent some time looking at issues of diversity and inclusion). Our emotional safety matters, and we tend to be quite protective of it—even if it means letting open secrets go unaddressed.

Marginalized groups have enough worries weighing on them, even when they're not running the risk of damaging their relationships with others at work. Being seen and respected in both an organization and society more broadly is difficult enough without drawing potentially negative attention.

Policies that make people feel personally protected—no matter what the situation—are absolutely integral to ensuring the organization deals with open secrets.

Luckily, in recent years attitudes towards marginalized groups have become visible, and we as a society have begun to talk about our experiences as "outliers." We've also come to realize that marginalized groups aren't actually "outliers" at all; we can thank the colorful, beautiful internet for that.

Tip for leaders: Diversity and inclusion plays a role in dispelling open secrets. Make sure your diversity and inclusion practices and policies truly encourage a diverse workplace.

Model the behavior

The best way to create a safe workplace and give people the ability to call attention to pervasive problems found within it is to model the behaviors that you want other people to display. Dysfunction occurs in cultures that don't pay attention to and value the principles upon which they are built. In order to discourage bystander behavior, transparent, inclusive, adaptable and collaborative communities must create policies that support calling attention to open secrets and then empathetically dealing with whatever the issue may be.

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Laura Hilliger is a writer, educator and technologist. She’s a multimedia designer and developer, a technical liaison, a project manager, an open web advocate who is happiest in collaborative environments. She’s a co-founder of We Are Open Co-op, an Ambassador for Opensource.com, is working to help open up Greenpeace, and a Mozilla alum. Find her on Twitter and Mastodon as @epilepticrabbit

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