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."

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Organizational Change:

Penguins look before they leapLook Before You Leap
When we execute complex organizational change, we sometimes create disasters. It's ironic that even in companies that test their products thoroughly, we rarely test organizational changes before we "roll them out." We need systematic methods for discovering problems before we execute change efforts. One approach that works well is the simulation.
Steppingstones in PompeiiChange How You Change
In the past two years, your life has probably changed. Do you commute over the same route you did two years ago? Same transportation? Same job? Same company? Same industry? Change is all around, and you're probably pretty skilled at it. You can become even more skilled if you change how you 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.
A sea otter and pupPower, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
The iconic image of cyber code, as popularized in the film The MatrixCyber Rumors in Organizations
Rumor management practices in organizations haven't kept up with rumor propagation technology. Rumors that propagate by digital means — cyber rumors — have longer lifetimes, spread faster, are more credible, and are better able to reinforce each other.

See also Organizational Change for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!