Workplace Taboos and Change
by Rick Brenner
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
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.
|Other Is Willing
|Other Is Unwilling
||Out of Bounds
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 constrained discussion topics, 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
actions (or failure to act) 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
- 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.
- 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 these ideas have 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.
- 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.
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.
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 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
- 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. Top
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 rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or by telephone at (617) 491-6289, or Toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.
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