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Corporate secrecy's unintended consequences

By Dan Carrison

In his new book, From Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired – and Secretive – Company Really Works, Adam Lashinsky describes a corporate culture obsessed with secrecy. Apparently, every project is so hush-hush that Apple teams, working independently, have no idea what their neighboring teams are doing – and don’t want to know. A monkish code of silence is practiced by all Apple employees at work, at home and on social media.

Far be it for me to question the policies of America’s most successful company, but a corporate culture steeped in secrecy may not always be the best model for the rest of us to emulate.

In World War II, it was said that “loose lips sink ships,” but tight lips in today’s information-integrated corporate culture can sink the ship as well. A lack of communication between employees encourages the growth of subcultures in which the disparate team members work together, eat lunch together, socialize together, and may even begin to view other departments with suspicion. Before too long, little fiefdoms of talented people can become indifferent, if not adversarial, to the concerns of the other fiefdoms down the hall, which are competing for budgetary allocations. Having no idea of the projects being worked on by their associates, fellow employees also have no idea of how they might contribute.

When virtually every project is top secret and every task team meets behind closed doors, opportunities to motivate the general workforce have been squandered. A closed corporate culture slams the door on an energy source eager to be harnessed: the good will of the rank and file. Conversely, an open corporate culture instills the big picture across the workforce and creates a strong sense of common cause throughout the organization, prompting individuals from every level to offer words of encouragement, confidence and perhaps sound advice.

With so much buzz going on, team members feel a sense of momentum, almost of destiny, as well as a sobering obligation not to let their fellow employees down. And to carry this sunshine policy even further, when the general public is aware of a company’s prestigious projects from the beginning, the responsible team members grow ever more determined to meet their deadlines rather than lose face.

There is something about public awareness that is extremely motivating.

What, for example, could be a more public event than a space launch? At Cape Canaveral, the rocket stands erect on the pad for months as the spacecraft is attached and tested, exposed to the national and international media, and even to the prying eyes of satellites from competitive nations. Should the launch end in a spectacular failure, the entire world would know – which may be why the rocket launches in the old Soviet Union and modern-day Russia were and are top secret.

Their rockets and spacecraft are assembled in the supine position beneath camouflaged roofs, and, at the last minute, are wheeled out upon railroad tracks in the middle of the night. The launch is strictly off limits, covered by a small crew of government-run media. If it is successful, the Russian citizen is treated the next day to news footage of a blazing technological triumph; if unsuccessful, the Russian citizen remains blissfully unaware of the project.

It is no wonder that NASA scientists look positively relieved after a spectacular liftoff. And it may be no coincidence that U.S. space programs, under the gaze of the public, have been more successful. When the whole world is watching, the pressure to perform is intensified – as is the desire of the managers involved to vindicate the public’s faith in them.

Dan Carrison, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. He also teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at dan.carrison@gmail.com.

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