Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 8;   February 26, 2003: Workplace Taboos and Change

Workplace Taboos and Change

by

In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they are 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 easily 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.

No symbolEllis, 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?"

The room went silent. Don had suggested what everyone was thinking, but what no one dared mention. 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.

We cannot change
what we cannot discuss
Discussion 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 discussion constraints, and the risks those constraints create.

Organizational commitments
When we cannot discuss organizational commitments, the organization can remain committed to a doomed ideal too long. Sometimes, an organization can't change fast enough for external conditions, and its past commitments become irrelevant — or worse.
Power
Powerful people are people, and they can be wrong. When we cannot question their actions, the organization might not be able to find its way out of trouble. This problem is most severe when the action (or inaction) of a person in power is the key issue.
Taboos
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.

What taboos do you see in your organization? Do any of them affect change efforts now underway? If they do, what would you have done differently in those change projects? What can you do about it now? Go to top Top  Next issue: Organizational Firefighting  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

For more on taboos, and how to deal with them, see "Workplace Taboos and Change."

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Related articles

More articles on Organizational Change:

Pick Up SticksPick-Up Sticks and the Change Game
When we change organizational culture, we often stumble over unexpected obstacles. Sometimes the tangle can be so frustrating that we want to start the company over again. Here are some tips for managing large-scale cultural change.
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Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations, the decision to let go involves debate.
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Change is all around. Some changes are welcome and some not, but when we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong. Why?
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond OdiernoWhen Change Is Hard: I
Sometimes changing organizations goes smoothly. More often, it doesn't. Whatever methodology we use — and there are many methodologies available — difficulties can arise. When change is hard, what's happening? What makes change hard?

See also Organizational Change for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Virginia SatirComing September 26: Congruent Decision-Making: I
Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make faulty decisions. Congruent decision-making can limit the incidence of bad decisions. Available here and by RSS on September 26.
A hospital patientAnd on October 3: Congruent Decision-Making: II
Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit. Available here and by RSS on October 3.

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