dark arts

Tech companies are way too secretive for their own good

February 13, 2014
February 13, 2014

Tech companies have billions riding on the success of their products, so they have good reason to be secretive. But when it becomes a reflexive part of company culture, it can backfire.

Amazon makes a habit of disclosing only the numbers it’s obligated to, and it keeps a tight leash on employees. Discipline has served it well in the market, but as George Packer points out in the New Yorker, there are long term issues with adopting secrecy as a given:

“I would argue that a culture of secrecy is bound to end up harming the institution itself, especially when it’s firmly under the control of one leader, as Amazon is under Jeff Bezos. Without some permeability to the outside world, groupthink takes over, bad habits become entrenched, and a company, like a government, is slow to recognize problems that are apparent to everyone else.”

Secrecy also constrains a company’s talent and makes it more difficult to criticize and self-correct.

A recent Medium post from Jordan Price, an ex-Apple contractor who publicly quit, illustrates the way that tight controls can wear a worker down. Price points out that on-boarding was a nightmare due to an array of passwords, accounts, and logins—it took a month just to get on the company’s server. Constant meetings and checkins eroded productivity as well.

Apple notoriously has, CEO Tim Cook recently put it, “black drapes and numerous locked doors and many other things.”

Barriers make it harder for people to get work done, and create a demoralizing divide between the limited number of employees in the know and everybody else. Talented people don’t generally relish the idea of working on tasks that seemingly have no relation to the finished product of a company. When locked rooms and secret projects are norm, people are likely to feel like they aren’t good or valued enough to be let in the secret.

As Duke professor Dorie Clark points out at the Harvard Business Review, employee buy-in is a better motivation tool than money. That’s hard to generate when information and strategy is hidden.

Companies whose proprietary research or product development takes years don’t have the luxury of being completely transparent. But they need to draw the line: when secrecy makes people worse, not better, employees.

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