Does Your Workplace Have A Troublesome Private Language?

By: James Pearce

This is not about gossip, private behind the scenes chatter, or anything like that. Private language is not about overt, kept secrets meant only for some people and withheld always from others. Instead, private language is based in knowledge. If you have private knowledge about something, you know deeply about that topic and likely know more than others do. Your knowledge places you as what we’d call an insider and others who don’t know what you know thus become outsiders to your private knowledge. Is your private knowledge an advantage or a threat?

Immediately, I think private knowledge is an advantage. After all, isn’t what you know how you found, kept, and succeeded at your job? Isn’t it what kept you around even when competition arrived? In this sense, to individuals it is an advantage. We often keep our private knowledge closely-held. We sometimes withhold teaching it to others in fear that they will overtake us and our job. It’s a sensible fear because our job puts food on our plates and competition for our food is just plain survival.

However, from the outsider’s perspective, private knowledge seems dangerous, mysterious, veiled. The outsider who doesn’t share in our knowledge feels ostracized from our group. Say, for instance, our business unit of 5 employees contains the only people who share the knowledge we have. No one else knows what we know. We hoard it, contain it, withhold it from others like hidden treasure that keeps us powerful. We lord it over those who don’t have it, brag about it, haughtily make ourselves look better because we know it and they don’t. An outsider would feel disconnected from us. If that outsider was our customer, well, it wouldn’t be to our survival advantage to ostracize them.

How then can we prevent private language from pushing away those whom we wish to retain closely? We can’t just give up corporate secrets and sometimes that private knowledge may be the very seed of our business existence. It’s really a social action that’s required. We can “keep people in the loop” by allowing them to know just enough. Not enough to be dangerous, but enough to feel comfortable. We have to bring them into our group, socialize with them, make them feel like they are attached. Little nuggets here and there, spread like seeds, soon grow branches and form networks that make it even easier for us to prevent private knowledge from being problematic.

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