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

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

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenKjhyhIxQfdxenEovner@ChacxpQIDGpYioCONfuMoCanyon.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:

Diving into a fish tankLook 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.
An abacusConventional Foolishness
Every specialization has a set of beliefs, often called "conventional wisdom." When these beliefs are so obvious that they're unquestioned and even unnoticed, there's an opportunity to leap ahead of the pack — by questioning the conventional wisdom.
What's in it for him?Beyond WIIFM
Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to organizations that use it.
Erecting a floating bridge in Korea (1952)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?
A diagram of effects illustrating these two loops in the Restructuring-Fear CycleThe Restructuring-Fear Cycle: I
When enterprises restructure, reorganize, downsize, outsource, spin off, relocate, lay off, or make other adjustments, they usually focus on financial health. Often ignored is the fear these changes create in the minds of employees. Sadly, that fear can lead to the need for further restructuring.

See also Organizational Change for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenAHOgBWbtyTaxuayNner@ChacmSoNlUVWtrPaDyPPoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, 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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post 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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.