Workplace Taboos and Change
by Rick Brenner
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.
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
For more on taboos, and how to deal with them, see "Workplace Taboos and Change."
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See also Organizational Change for more related articles.
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