Periodically every boss shares confidential information with an associate or direct report who is given the caveat that it is highly confidential and not to be repeated. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious leak of this material emerges and you have a suspicion, but no proof, that there was a breach of that covenant.
Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to determine if you can really trust someone is to put him or her to the test by sharing less than accurate information or, simply put, a phony story. This is a harmless exercise, provided the person you are assessing passes the test.
Start conveying your little fairy tale to your target in hushed tones and in an out-of-the ordinary location, and make it something a bit farfetched, but conceivable. Explain that what you’re revealing is for the faithful’s ears only. It can never be repeated, as it’s unlikely it will ever materialize. Conclude that as a key player, you wanted to bring your confidant under your cone of silence. Be sure you test only one person with this information, because if gets back to you, you’ll know instantly who had the loose lip.
Next, keep your ear to the ground and do a lot of managing by walking about in the days ahead. Focus on who might benefit from having this inside scoop and ask them a few carefully crafted leading and open-ended questions that just might tip the scale for them to tell you the latest grist from the mil.
If you never hear another word about the “bait information,” you can then rest easier that your suspicions were unfounded.
If, however, you hear whispers about the planted tale, as they say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
If the faux rumor is never repeated there is no harm, therefore no foul. If your suspected Deep Throat turns out to be the leaker, don’t call a plumber, call HR.
If you’re queasy about this “trust, but verify” method, think of the serious consequences if you shared very sensitive information and it was inappropriately disclosed. It could adversely affect the business and have prolonged far-reaching ramifications. It might easily give a competitor an edge or cause disastrous morale issues. If it’s a deal, it could either blow it or cost you big money. Even worse, the culprit who breached your confidence once is likely to do it again if not apprehended. Much akin to the bookkeeper who embezzled money for 30 years, but was never caught until after his retirement.
It’s best to refrain from telling the associate about your trial by fire. To close the loop, about a month after the shared revelation, explain that nothing ever came of what was surreptitiously discussed — you never know when you’ll have to use this drill again with another candidate of concern. Knowing is always better than guessing if someone can’t be trusted. It also avoids unnecessary angst and booby traps.
Remember, being a boss requires creativity. It’s also not easy. If it were, everyone could do it.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of
$5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide. Today, as founder/CEO of Max-Ventures, his firm invests in and consults for retail businesses.