You “carry” a secret. You feel “burdened” by a secret. Your secret “weighs” on you.
Secrecy may be an abstract concept, but there’s a reason we talk about it in these concrete terms. New research from Michael Slepian found that keeping a secret is akin to being encumbered by a physical weight. And that weight may be holding you back at work.
“The more you feel preoccupied by a secret and are thinking about it, the more you are using your personal resources — cognitive and motivational — the less energy you feel you have available to pursue other tasks,” Slepian says. “You see things around you as more challenging. It’s the same outcome as when you are carrying a heavy burden.”
In our personal lives, this dynamic can lead us to withdraw from people, activities, and relationships. In the workplace, it can result in decreased productivity and engagement — which spells trouble for employees and employers alike. “Being preoccupied by a secret at work can be demotivating,” Slepian says. “And we know if you are less motivated, you perform less well.”
In a series of studies, Slepian, along with co-researchers Nicholas Camp of Stanford University and E.J. Masicampo of Wake Forest University, asked participants to think of either a “preoccupying” secret or a “non-preoccupying” secret and then to judge the steepness of a hill. Individuals’ perception of “hill slant,” as this test is known, has been shown to vary depending on whether subjects are carrying additional weight. The results were consistent: those participants who were asked to recall a preoccupying secret judged the hill to be steeper, and therefore more forbidding, just as if they were lugging a heavy load.
Preoccupying secrets can take many forms, from sexual orientation, infidelities, and money troubles to benign bad habits and personal quirks, Slepian says. But because one person’s major skeleton-in-the-closet might be another person’s peccadillo, the troubling nature of secrets is subjective. Couple that with the inherent complications of sharing personal information at the office, and workers might be at a loss as to how to handle their private concerns.
For workers pinned down under the weight of their secrets, the best solution is simply to get them off their chests. “Sometimes people feel like the right thing to do is to keep the secret,” Slepian explains. “But by doing that, you may set yourself up for negative consequences.”
Slepian urges those burdened by their secrets to talk to a real, live person if possible — but only someone they trust, someone who can keep their secret and who does not have control over any potential spillover effects of the revelation. In the workplace, that might be a colleague in another department or even a friend in a different industry. For those without a confidant, anonymous hotlines offer individuals a way to talk about their secrets without revealing their identities.
Even if divulging your secret out loud isn’t a possibility, there are still ways to reduce your preoccupation with it. One way to do that is to write it down, whether that means posting it to an online message board or forum, sending it to a website like PostSecret, which shares submissions confidentially, or just jotting it down in a personal journal. Getting the secret out there, even in written form, “tends to make people very relieved,” Slepian says.
Not only does the sheer act of talking about your secret relieve the pressure of keeping it, by explaining and acknowledging your feelings about your secret to another person, you can begin to move forward and regain your productivity. “When you talk about your secret,” Slepian says “you start thinking about it constructively — processing it, making sense of it, learning how to cope with it — reducing your preoccupation with that secret and taking you off the path of burden.”
Read the research
About the researcher
Michael Slepian is Assistant Professor in the Management Division of Columbia Business School. His program of research examines secrecy and trust. He studies the...Read more.