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#337: Organizational "Undiscussables"

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, June 29, 2010
I am working with an organization to help generate ideas for innovation and change from a very talented team of employees. The problem is, every time I meet with them, there seems to be something that is preventing open and honest dialogue. I can't put my finger on what it is. Do you have any suggestions for surfacing and identifying this "unmentionable" so that we can move forward constructively?

Noted Harvard management scholar Chris Argyris refers to these barriers to open communication in organizations as "undiscussables". Argyris theorizes that, over time, organizations can easily become defensive and self-censoring. As a result, communication becomes limited to expressing those views that the company's culture deems appropriate. For example, if a person believes there will be negative ramifications for conveying bad news at a department meeting, they simply won't bring it up.

Since these "undiscussables" can be considered symptoms of deeper organizational issues, left unaddressed, they can worsen over time. What can you do to help eliminate these barriers? One tip is to address them head on by identifying their existence. This can sometimes be achieved by simply asking the group to explicitly identify the "undicussables" openly and honestly, both individually or collectively.

Try asking the following question in individual informal discussions with the team members or with the entire group at the next meeting—"What issues weren't brought up that should have been? If you try this in the meeting setting, encourage everyone at the meeting to contribute an answer.

Tip: If not identified and properly addressed, "undiscussables" can lead to significant long term operational issues, a loss of competitive opportunities and, in general, a dysfunctional corporate culture. For some additional interesting reading, check out Argyris' classic article "Skilled Incompetence" from the Harvard Business Review (9/86).

© 2010 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  business culture  client relations  communication  customer understanding 

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