Workplace Taboos and Change


In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they're taboo. When we're aware of taboos, we can choose when to obey them, and when to be more flexible. When we're unaware of them, they can limit our ability to change.

Sitting through the project review, Don could easily see why Marigold was late. But he couldn't see how to offer his insight in a way that people could hear. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. "Excuse me, I have a question," he said.

Ellis, the presenter, paused. "Yes."

"I was wondering," Don began, "what if we just told them that we can't make the date if we have to use that vendor?"

Silence. Don had suggested what everyone was thinking, but what no one dared suggest. He had violated a taboo.

A taboo is a cultural agreement not to engage in a certain behavior. Taboos relating to what we can talk about are especially important in the workplace, because we cannot change what we cannot discuss.

In the workplace, as elsewhere, we can categorize behavioral constraints according to a willingness matrix analogous to the Johari Window. For any topic, I can be willing or unwilling to discuss it, and so can my discussion partner. If we're both willing, the topic is Open. If my partner is willing, but I'm not, the topic is Self-Constrained. If I'm willing but my partner isn't, the topic is Other-Constrained. And if we're both unwilling, the topic is Out of Bounds. When everyone agrees that a topic is Out of Bounds, it's probably taboo.

I'm Willing I'm Unwilling
Other Is Willing Open Self-Constrained
Other Is Unwilling Other-Constrained Out of Bounds

"No" symbolDiscussion constraints can limit how organizations can change. If you're aware of discussion constraints, you can use that knowledge when you plan change projects. For instance, if you know that there's a taboo against discussing abandoning the mainframe, you might want to change the taboo before you try to change the computing infrastructure.

Here are some other common constrained discussion topics, and the risks those constraints create.

One common taboo is the discussion of taboos. Most of us want to believe that our workplace cultures are open, and many are. But if yours isn't, and if it has a belief in openness, there could be a taboo against discussing taboos.
If we can't discuss whether or not we have taboos, we'll have a hard time dealing with them. In effect, the "taboo taboo" is a defense mechanism that taboos use to protect themselves from discovery or intervention. This confers a priority on the taboo taboo — if you want to examine taboos in your organization, look for this one first.
Powerful people are people, and they can be wrong. The power taboo prevents us from openly examining the actions of people in power. In its more stringent form, this taboo can even convert "lessons learned" activities into simple exercises in fawning praise for the vision of our leaders.
When we cannot question the actions of the powerful, the organization can have difficulty finding its way out of trouble. This problem is most severe when the action (or inaction) of a person in power is the issue.
Personal data
Most of us consider private any information about compensation, performance reviews, job searches, disciplinary action, or health issues. But since personal issues can strongly affect motivation, performance, and even business strategy, we must occasionally discuss them.
When we can't discuss personal data we lose access to an important regulatory mechanism. For example, open information about the distribution of compensation can act as a control on arbitrary actions by management — it can enforce fairness. And if we knew how many employees were engaged in job searches, we could use that information as an indicator of management performance, and take appropriate action.
Personal behavior, personal life events
When personal behavior or life events limit the performance of an employee or the employee's colleagues, we need to discuss it, but often we have difficulty because of a taboo. Unless we can discuss personal behavior as it's reflected in performance, we'll have difficulty addressing those performance issues, even in the most humane and respectful ways.
A shouting match

Photo by 05com under license (cc) 2.0

In most workplace environments, we have difficulty showing feelings. We cannot even discuss them. It's a pity — feelings are part of being human. When we can discuss feelings, we can manage them, and we can use them as indicators of morale, future performance, or motivation.
This taboo can limit the effectiveness of project retrospectives. In projects, strong feelings are common. They play an important role in determining project performance. Yet feelings are rarely discussed in project retrospectives, and this omission can prevent us from truly understanding the evolution of the projects we're supposedly examining.
Organizational commitments
Sometimes, an organization can't change fast enough to accommodate external conditions, and its past commitments become irrelevant — or worse. For example, just-in-time inventory practices can dramatically lower operating costs. But in time of war or natural disaster, the same practices can lead to factory shutdowns resulting from supply chain disruptions. When we cannot discuss organizational commitments, the organization can remain committed to a doomed vision too long.
Over time, compelling ideas that once captured the imaginations of the people of an organization can become unquestioned dogma. Though they may once have provided great strength, these ideas don't always adapt to changing external conditions, and that inflexibility can threaten the existence of the organization. To loosen the hold of these ideas on the organization, we must be able to question them. Taboos prevent us from doing so.
Fossilized processes
Most organizations have processes that nearly everyone understands are antiquated and counterproductive. Requisition processes are typical examples. "Just jump through the hoops, don't try to fix the world" is the mantra.
A fossil fish skeleton
When we can't talk about these processes, we can't model their costs to the organization, and the fossilized processes are then very difficult to change. Indeed, the taboo is part of the cultural infrastructure that enables these dysfunctional processes to persist. If we could discuss them openly, we might find that upgrading them could provide significant payback.
Who gains from change
For any change that's ever been proposed, some people have gained, some have lost, and most have both gained and lost. When the beneficiaries of a change are its primary advocates, discussing their gains is often seen as personal attack. That's why the topic is often taboo. But when we cannot explore proposed changes from this perspective, we risk installing new processes that misallocate costs and resources. And if that happens, we haven't gained what we thought we would.

Transforming Taboos

By now, I hope you're convinced that taboos can be expensive to your organization. But what can you do to get rid of them? Don't even try — transform them instead. When we transform a taboo, we limit both its duration and its extent.

Most taboos came about because they made sense at one time, or perhaps they still make sense some of the time. When we transform them, as opposed to erasing them, we honor the value they once provided, and perhaps still provide. But since taboos can exercise too much control, we must find ways to modify them so that they serve constructive roles, without constraining our freedom as people.

For example, a taboo against questioning organizational commitments can be useful when the commitment is fresh. In the just-in-time inventory management example, restricting discussion is useful when we're just beginning the program. We need everyone to give the program a chance to grow and thrive, and withholding comment and criticism can be helpful during the early stages of installing JIT infrastructure.

A small meetingBut once installed, we must be free to critique the program to keep it sharp, and to abandon it altogether if conditions change and we need more stock in depth. We must limit the taboo in duration and extent. Here's how.

Begin by acknowledging the need for restraint. We can say something like "During the launch of the JIT program, we'd like to suspend discussion of the wisdom of the whole idea. Later, when we have more organizational experience with it, we can talk about its strengths and risks, and when JIT might or might not be a useful strategy." By acknowledging the constraint on discussion, and putting time limits on the constraint, we relieve some people of the urge to comment. And by acknowledging that the JIT approach might have weaknesses in some situations, we get people thinking about regimes of suitability. This transforms the taboo — an absolute and permanent discussion constraint — into a time-limited and situation-limited suspension of commentary.

The taboo transformation follows the pattern devised by Virginia Satir for dealing with personal constraints, which she called family survival rules. See "Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never," Point Lookout for February 27, 2002 for more.

To transform a taboo, we follow three steps. Let's suppose that the taboo has the form "We must never discuss X." Here are the three steps:

Change "must never" to "are able to never"
This step transforms the taboo from "We must never discuss X" to "We are able to never discuss X," which is a statement about our abilities. In the workplace context, the transformed taboo now means, approximately, "We can always be successful even though we're committed to never discussing X." Now, in my experience, this is a laughable proposition. In most organizations, conditions always change enough to eventually require us to discuss most anything. Any claim that we can be successful even though we never discuss X is questionable.
And this leads to problems, because if we aren't able to always refrain from discussing X, how can we ever meet the standard "we must never discuss X?" Clearly the taboo has trapped us in a box.
Change "am able to never" to "can sometimes"
Now the taboo becomes "We can sometimes discuss X," which is more reasonable. When we absolutely have to discuss X, we can, even though we usually don't.
Finally, add conditions
In the third step, we enumerate conditions under which we can discuss X. In the JIT example, the taboo is transformed in this third step to:

We can sometimes discuss the merits and applicability of JIT after the launch phase is completed, when we have more organizational experience with it, or when economic conditions require a more in-depth approach to inventory management.

Transforming taboos on the organizational scale, one by one, we can gradually lift discussion constraints. This frees the people in the organization to talk about issues before they become emergencies. Transforming taboos enables the organization to change.   Go to top  Top

Contact me

Before you initiate a major change project in your organization, consider the possibility of a Taboo Assessment. I'll assess your organization for taboos that might present risks to your change project. Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at or by telephone at (650) 787-6475, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.

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