The 7 deadly sins of company culture - secrecy

Aaron Asaro

6 minute read

Startups are chaotic as they grow. In the midst of that chaos it's easy to sow the seeds of a company culture that will haunt founders (if the company survives). A culture of internal secrecy is one such seed.

Some brilliant companies employ secrecy. It can be an effective tool to insulate a company from the expectations of the market, and competition e.g. Apple. It can be used as a PR stunt e.g. Coca-Cola and their "secret formula". But, large organisation tactics are usually different to those of a startup.



(of a person or an organization) inclined to conceal feelings and intentions or not to disclose information.
"she was very secretive about her past"

  • (of a state or activity) characterized by the concealment of intentions and information.
    "secretive deals";
  • (of a person's expression or manner) having an enigmatic or conspiratorial quality.
    "a secretive smile"

Source: Oxford Languages (via Google)

What is a secretive company culture? #

In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel describes how secrets can galvanise a startup team: "every great business is built upon a secret that's hidden from the outside world. When you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator." The key then is to share the secrets you discover with your team.

Startups must have their secrets. The team are fellow conspirators. However, when startups use secrecy to inject artificial silos between teams or team members it breeds paranoia, and hampers progress and innovation. Here are examples of how destructive secrecy might manifest in your startup:

  1. You ask people to keep secrets from their colleagues. The secret would affect the work of those colleagues. The secret has no expiry date.

  2. Exit interviews have words to the effect of "I wish I was told..."

  3. "Retrospective" meetings reveal duplicated effort.

I've written a few drafts of this blog post. Initially I deconstructed the culture of some failed startups. I used interviews, glassdoor reviews, and internet searches to see if and how a secretive atmosphere contributed to their demise. That kind of deconstruction is valuable, but not quite in keeping with the tone of this blog. So I removed it.

How do you avoid building a secretive company culture? #

Secrecy is a tool, but like any tool it should be used with moderation. It is not the solution to all problems, but if used carelessly it can be the start of many. If, and when, you use secrecy as a tactic, bear the following in mind.

1. If you need to keep a secret #

  • Make the motivations clear to the secret-keeper
  • Set an expiry date for the secret

2. Your team are your co-conspirators #

  • You work with adults, treat them as such
  • To do their best work your team needs to share in the knowledge you have
  • Expose customer feedback and be honest about the path ahead

If you want to see what this looks like listen to Stewart Butterfield talk about a pivot from building a games platform, to building Slack. If you hire well, your team will run through walls with you to build something amazing.

3. Encourage cross-pollination of ideas #

Overall, this is a mindset shift rather than an exhaustive set of tactics. For some, this mindset comes naturally. It does not for me, and might not for you.