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.
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?"
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 discussDiscussion 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.
- 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.
- 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? Top Next Issue
Is 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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More articles on Organizational Change:
- He's No Longer Here
- Sometimes we adopt inappropriate technologies, or we deploy unworkable processes, largely because of
the political power of their advocates, and despite widespread doubts about the wisdom of the moves.
Strangely, though, the decisions often stick long after the advocates move on. Why? And what can we
do about it?
- Training Bounceback
- Within a week after we've learned some new tool or technique, sometimes even less, we're back to doing
things the old way. It's as if the training never even happened. Why? And what can we do to change this?
- When Change Is Hard: II
- When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance."
But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still
encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
- Organizational Roots of Toxic Conflict
- When toxic conflict erupts in a team, cooperation ends and person-to-person attacks begin. Usually we
hold responsible the people involved. But in some cases, the organization is the root cause, and then
replacing or disciplining the people might not help.
- What Keeps Things the Way They Are
- Changing processes can be challenging. Sometimes the difficulty arises from our tendency to overlook
other processes that work to keep things the way they are. If we begin by changing those "regulator
processes" the difficulty can sometimes vanish.
See also Organizational Change for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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