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  • Writer's pictureSteph Shuff

I have a secret

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

“I’ve got a secret,” Margaret said, as she stood at the front of a crowded training room, waving a stack of notecards.

A hush settled across the room. “I’ve got a secret.”

Standing at no more than five feet tall, with her voice barely above a whisper, Margaret McLaughlin could silence a noisy room in an instant. All she had to say was, “I’ve got a secret.”

At the time, Margaret was my boss. We worked together at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Here, with a few experienced wonks (former Ambassadors and college professors and former USAID Administrators among them), we took groups of 30 students through a two-week training course called, “Foundations of Interagency Conflict Prevention and Response.” Or as I liked to think of it, “Don’t let things get worse in important U.S. geo-political zones.”

The training course was an introduction to state-building in hostile or war-torn environments. A “How to build civil society in Iraq for dummies,” if you will. We had ten days to prepare U.S. federal employees to be deployed into some of the most hostile places in the world, all with the hopes that they might adapt to local culture and customs, integrate seamlessly with on-site military support, make any kind of headway within existing political systems, win hearts and minds, and not get harmed in the process. Modest goals, to be sure.

Our students, after completing our course, would go on to take an additional class that we referred to affectionately as “Shooting and Driving,” though it had some other, longer, U.S. Government approved name. In three weeks, trainees were expected to learn how to handle weapons and explosives and safely navigate a high-speed vehicular chase, among other objectives. Needless to say, we were preparing teams of people to conduct nearly impossible work in scary places, and we had to do it in a fraction of the time that they otherwise should have required.

Margaret, the secret-keeper, was in charge of administering this training. It was her job to see that our trainees felt adequately prepared to serve on poorly assembled teams following inadequate training. As unlikely as it sounds, she often succeeded.

What, then, was Margaret’s secret? What could hush a crowded room in seconds, and turn strangers into productive teammates in a matter of days?

In fact, her secret wasn’t her secret at all.

On the first day of each course, Margaret would instruct every student in the class to take an index card and write down a secret , with three conditions: the secret had to be anonymous, it had to be something that no one in the room would know, and it had to be something that could be shared with the group.

At various times over the next two weeks, she would pull randomly from the index cards and read them aloud to the class. She always started this game by announcing, “I have a secret.” I watched students hold their breath as they waited to hear if their secret would be read. I saw students laugh together as they discovered new and unexpected things about each other. I watched introverts open up as they shared stories they might not have talked about in years with near-strangers. With every day that passed and every secret that Margaret revealed, the group got closer and the conversations became more lively. Sessions became more and more productive. The students generated more ideas, they offered more opinions and alternative views, and they got more creative in their problem solving.

Recently, an article by the New York Times chronicled Google’s quest to find the common characteristics shared by highly productive teams. In its never-ending mission to quantify everything, Google’s Project Aristotle discovered what Margaret had always known: secrets and ideas and opinions are meant to be shared, and teams benefit when individuals feel they are safe enough to share them.

What exactly did Project Aristotle find? To the surprise of many, it did not find that the best teams were made up of the most intelligent, or the most extroverted, or even the most productive individuals. What Project Aristotle did discover is that the best teams shared one common characteristic: members felt a sense of psychological safety.

What is psychological safety? In formal terms, it is the ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ In less-than-formal terms, it is the sense that you can share your secrets.

The secrets people shared in our training classes were varied, from the light-hearted and fun (“I won a hot-dog eating contest in my hometown”) to the darkest confessions (“I have watched a man die.”). Margaret was always the first to share her own secret. She was sure to read every secret offered, and every person that shared one had the chance to talk about it and why he or she chose it. It was an incredible experience to see Margaret’s work as a team-builder. In ten days, she took complete strangers and turned them into allies, partners, and friends. She turned them into a team.

I’ve spent much of my career trying to emulate Margaret’s approach by being both authentic and vulnerable, and I’ve used her secrets game as an ice-breaker more than once. If you are assembling a team or working on one, even if you’re not necessarily in charge, do what Margaret did, and share a secret. The consequences could be a lot less scary, and a lot more productive, than you might think.

What’s your secret?

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