What is undiscussable in your culture?

Guest post by Terri Kruzan.

Undiscussable cultureWhat are the “undiscussables” in your workplace? Is there something that almost everyone knows but no one mentions…? Welcome to the heart of organizational culture! Undiscussables can help to better understand your culture and change it for the better.

Last year, the New York Times revealed that not everything has been golden at Harvard Business School. And surprisingly or not, the crack in the ivy-covered veneer at Harvard Business School is the challenge of gender equity. Revealed was that females got lower grades than man even though the sexes enter the school with similar test scores. Female students and younger female faculty in the classroom were hazed, and female students felt pressure to dress well, ‘look hot’ and not be ‘too assertive’.

Yikes, nothing really new here – but what is most surprising is how long these behaviors appear to have been tolerated at the Business School to the point that Harvard staff describe them as their “dirty little secrets.”
As at Harvard, asking people to name their own workplace undiscussable, or a difficult to talk about topic, is a great way to open the door to ‘honest culture conversations’ in most organizations.

Are you willing to discuss undiscussables? Click To Tweet

For example, I was facilitating an “armchair culture audit” with a group of leaders as part of a strategic thinking session before embarking on an enterprise-wide change effort. The Armchair Audit is an informal and small group approach to diagnosing culture. Participants answer open-ended culture clue questions, such as what are your workplace undiscussables – and jointly infer their company’s underlying values & beliefs.

Is this undiscussable?

When the small groups finished debriefing their results with the whole team, it was obvious the CEO was disturbed. He had been part of the session’s planning – prepped on the questions to be asked – and introduced the session where he asked his leadership team to be honest and candid. He and his small group had actively participated as much as the other groups, but it appeared with some differing findings.

The CEO started shouting about his disagreement over the finding of how promotions at the company seem to be based more on past favors, personal relationships or being part of the “in-group” than it was about producing results. This was a telling moment in the session, and as a good process consultant I took a deep breath and waited to see how the other members of the leadership team would respond.

In a break in the shouting, a distant voice floated over the quiet room. The company’s COO was in the back of the room pouring himself a cup of coffee with his back to the room. He said: “John, do you remember how you and I were golf buddies before I joined the company – and how we still play golf together every third Saturday of the month? And do you recall how we sit down each month and decide who to join our foursome so we can get to know the younger folks in the company?

Just naming the undiscussable can lead to honest culture conversations Click To Tweet
The room was quiet, the COO turned around and continued: “I now realize that you and I see our Saturday golf times as good talent management work, but other folks interpret it differently. Being invited to play golf with us is a highly coveted invitation into our “in-group” and other division presidents and managers have copied our informal approach to talent management and have created their own in-groups.”

The COO blew on his coffee and sat down as another younger leadership team member added his voice. “We talk proudly about our company as a meritocracy where success is based on meeting your numbers and producing results. I wanted to believe that but my career was stalled at this company until I received that phone call from Eileen (CEO’s Exec. Asst.) where she invited me to join the Saturday golf game.”

Do we practice what we preach?

GolfWhat I did next was thank folks for being honest and candid. The CEO looked me in the eye and said he needed to take a phone call and would be back. The COO took over leadership of the group, and together we supported more dialogue on how the “in-group” practice played out and how leaders handled the hypocrisy sensed by employees. Finally, the group discussed how important the company’s building & maintaining relationships value was to the success of the company, but how it may be taken to an extreme when applied to talent management.

As you can see, just naming the undiscussable can lead to ‘honest culture conversations’ that are the basis for sustainable change. At Harvard Business School, Dean Nitin Nohria named this approach: “Sunshine as the best disinfectant.” In working with culture or leadership teams – asking the question “What are your workplace’s undiscussables?” is a reliable way to get people to talk more openly about their organization’s “dirty little secrets.”

Sunshine is the best disinfectant. What are your culture taboos? Click To Tweet

At this company the informal dialogue approach about understanding their company’s current culture was a door opener. They continued by gathering more culture clue data in a formal, safe, organization-wide survey and interview approach and integrated the results into their overall change management plan. The folks at Harvard also gathered anonymous survey data to bolster their change efforts for gender equity and used it to quantitatively measure progress.

I am sure most change managers have their own special approach to unlocking an organization’s undiscussables. Would you share your stories and special techniques that open the way for honest culture conversations?

  • What is your approach to unlocking an organization’s undiscussables?
  • Which practices that are “normal” in your company culture could be interpreted differently by different stakeholders?
  • Please check: How’s gender equity in your organization? Really?

Terri KruzanTerri Kruzan is a change manager who helps leaders and organizations gain a deeper understanding of organizational culture roadblocks and shortcuts to make change smoother and more sustainable. She can be reached via Linkedin

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this blog and ocai-online.com.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Eva Cooper

    This is a great article! I think, until folks talk about the “undiscussables”, authentic culture change will not occur!

  2. Steve Jones

    Love this article. I use the 5 dysfunctions of a team to tease out such issues with teams. I can see its parallels here. To be a successful team you must have trust; conflict; commitment; accountability; and attention to results.
    I’ve used this with SMT’s and Boards to flush out the undiscussables.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Yes, I can see the parallels with Patrick Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team:
      Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
      Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
      Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
      Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
      Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success
      Thanks for adding this, Steve Jones.

  3. Maurice Collis

    In all probability the “undiscussables” increase as the performance of the organisation declines regardless of culture. Asking the question: “What should we really be talking about?” regardless of the agenda is the first step.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Great question to start any meeting….! As a preparation to check whether there’s an elephant in the room before we follow the agenda that’s about mice only 🙂 Thank you, Maurice.

  4. Kevin Brownsey

    Whilst I like the approach, this has been a topic in most boardrooms for decades. Different labels exist of course; sacred cows, elephant in the room, that which shall not be named……etc etc. The challenge is how to get the subject raised. In my experience simply asking for people to raise the ‘undiscussables’ does not work unless facilitated with smart ‘current culture’ insight. This means real examples at a detailed level, not platitudes at a typology level. It means including anti-behaviours in the survey and getting qualitative insight alongside quantitative. Its complex and its what we do.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      I agree: it is not easy and it does not always work to simply ask people to name the undiscussable. A good facilitator has multiple ways of enticing the team to reveal the things that are hidden in plain sight. It doesn’t necessarily have to start with a culture survey, even though it may make the discussion easier. I use the OCAI (Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument) to get an idea of the current culture, then find the daily behaviors that maintain that culture, dig deeper for underlying beliefs and then see if you can entice the taboos to come out and play…