Calling Out The Undiscussables

Elephants are a phenomenal occurrence in organizational life. They lurk around corners. They ride the elevators. They take pride of place at the centre of many meeting room tables.

Here’s the thing, though. No one talks about them. No one names them. They just sit there, seen and yet unaddressed, taking up a disproportionate amount of space and attention for all that we studiously avoid discussing them.

It’s a tough job, being the elephant in the room. I fear for the therapy bills.

What the elephants in the room represent are the undiscussables. These are the facts, perspectives, opinions and truths that are often broadly apparent and widely understood to be present, but are not acceptable to publicly (and sometimes even privately) discuss or address.

Going back to last week’s case study of the Challenger launch decision, the potential failure of the o-rings was deemed an undiscussable by NASA. In fact, the possibility of launching in cold weather was an undiscussable. Both of these were largely shaped by the most important undiscussable of all: that the Marshall Space Flight Centre must never by the cause of a delay in the shuttle program.

The source of the last undiscussable is easy to identify, but difficult to address. The executive responsible for MSFC, William Lucas, had established this as a fundamental edict and reinforced it clearly. Confirmed by several sources, “many a highly skilled manager, scientist or engineer has been ‘buried’ in the organization because they underestimated the man’s psychopathic reaction to dissent.” In other words, a culture of fear was created where opposition had dire career consequences.

It doesn’t take something on the scale or consequence of launching the space shuttle to generate undiscussables. “Career limiting moves” are often perceived as being possible over much less significant—but no less dire—actions. One I view with remarkable regularity is as simple as how project status is communicated, and how it is responded to.

I frequently ask—in audits, engagements and workshops—what the consequences are of project status being reported as “red” or “yellow” (or, in fact, any colour other than green). The very common answers are: anger, hostility, challenge and the executive overriding the status and ordering it back to “green.” It doesn’t take much—nor does it take long—for the message to be taken on board that any status other than “green” is unacceptable. The result is a dashboard of green status reports, few of which accurately reflect reality. A host of problems—from insignificant to catastrophic—are painted over with a shiny coat of green.

What’s common in these examples so far is executive hostility to bad news. Anything contrary to plans or stated objectives is unwelcome, and therefore suppressed. What’s also important to recognize is that there is often a level of collusion that occurs. We accept the fact that the status must be green, and we accommodate.

What we also do, though, is somewhat subtler. We often recognize there is an issue or potential problem, but hope that it can be overcome. So the status stays green. A little more time goes by, but we’re still hopeful, so the status still says green. By the time anxiety sets in, the status has been green for so long that we’re hesitant to change it now. And so it’s still green, even while complications and problems mount. Eventually the problem becomes so overwhelmingly obvious, we lurch quickly to red. By this time, it’s pretty impossible for us—or anyone else—to recover and respond.

The point of a colour-coded project status is that it’s a rapid and productive means of communicating. But it only works when we’re allowed to communicate, and we feel that the communication will be productively received and accepted. Changing status is a form of built-in escalation. A status of yellow should signal “I have an issue that may require intervention; inform yourself and prepare to act” and red should signify “there is a problem that requires assistance and action.” When the message is “this status will get you censured,” none of the above is possible.

In between the range of consequences bounded by “the loss of a space shuttle and seven lives” and “my project is in trouble” lies an array of other potential challenges. All of these offer up the opportunity to veer into the territory of undiscussables.

There are some essential criteria for something to take on the attribute of an “undiscussable.” (Although this is less a guide for manufacturing your very own elephant so much as it is being able to recognize one when it emerges). The first pre-requisite is a topic: there needs to be a subject that is open to perception, interpretation or the imposition of a manufactured truth. There is a viewpoint that is emphasized, a reality that is avoided or alternative facts (we used to just call them lies) that are imposed.

Secondly, the preferred interpretation needs to be imposed by someone in a position of power. Whether that is ruling a topic off limits or imposing a particular interpretation, there is a force of will that creates the expectation of the new reality. The form of power involved can vary. The presumption is that it is hierarchical and formal in nature; an executive doesn’t want to hear the truth, and clearly sets the expectation that someone will be penalized for speaking the truth. While that’s often the case, it doesn’t have to be. More informal types of power can also apply here, including expertise, charisma or the borrowing of actual authority from others.

Attached to that power, though, is the establishment or threat of consequences. This, clearly, is where “career-limiting move” has its origins; we fear being fired, or worse potentially even black-balled in our industry or field of expertise. Consequences may be more subtle, whether it takes the form of reassignment, relocation, bad projects or other forms of purgatory. In terms of more social forms of power, it may take the form of bullying, ridicule or social ostracism.

Finally, there needs to be a level of acceptance. The expression of an alternative truth—or the suppression of an actual truth—needs to be adopted and complied with by others. We need to be complicit in the creation of our own undiscussables. We go along with it, because that’s what is expected, and what is perceived as being required.

The outline above is pretty much a recipe for any abuse of power. What’s particularly true about undiscussables, though, is that the exercise and imposition of this power isn’t necessarily overt. Executives may not be aware that they are ruling a topic off limits. They may even be completely oblivious. This is especially true when others take on managing expectations and grooming interpretations.

It could be lieutenants, not wanting to upset the boss, “paving the way” for how a meeting or a discussion will go (or ensure that it is understood by all involved about where a meeting won’t go). An off-hand remark or sarcastic comment is received as being a genuine request. Due to the fear of how someone might react, raising an issue is avoided. Because an executive was angry once, those around them steer clear of similar situations going forward. And a common favourite is the way in which people twist themselves into verbal pretzels, downplaying, soft-pedalling or obliquely referencing problems so as to avoid coming straight out and saying what is actually happening.

What results is also comical, if it weren’t both tragic and sad. “The vendor isn’t performing, and the project will be late” should be an easy assertion of truth. Instead, we get misdirection and bafflegab. “While there is the possibility of contractual outcomes not fully aligning with timeliness and completion, alternative strategies are being pursued and consultations continue to massage outcomes and ensure compliance with expectations.” I’m not sure whether I’m more disturbed that I can write that sentence, that it is grammatically correct, or that people will recognize seeing similar in their own organizational lives.

What all this means is that undiscussables definitely do happen. Elephants get created, move into meeting rooms, and then refuse to vacate the premises. And in many instance, they are not even consciously summoned into existence in the first place. They just start by gradually appearing, but once present tend to multiply with disturbing regularity.

It’s problematic, though, when an undiscussable builds on half-truth which builds on alternative fact, until seemingly simple questions become virtually impossible to answer. I once saw a project director interrogated over the status of the implementation by the very sponsor that had inflated the business case, slashed the budget and then imposed a “green” status on every status report. When forced to account for the project’s performance, the project director tied himself in knots to avoid pointing out the seemingly simple and straightforward facts that led to the current situation. So much had been deemed undiscussable about the project that nothing coherent and plausible remained.

In my work as a consultant, I get confronted with the presence of elephants and undiscussables on a fairly regular basis. And one of the critical parts of my role is to call them out. That’s not always easy or fun, but it is essential to the work I do (and it’s a large part, I suspect, of why organizations engage me in the first place).

Given that I’m not part of the organization, I have no idea where the undiscussability of a point emerged. I don’t know who rendered a topic undiscussable, or whether that was overt, subversive or entirely accidental. And I don’t know the basis for complicity in its undiscussability by the broader group (although I can usually take an educated guess).

What I do know—and what forms the basis for calling it out—is that there is a misalignment between what is being talked about and the objective reality of the organization. Topics of conversation are fenced off or avoided altogether. Statements of fact are made that don’t line up with actual circumstances.

The secret is that addressing the elephant is surprisingly straightforward. It can involve making as simple a statement as, “It seems to me that we haven’t discussed this topic, and that doing so might be important.” Or “what I’ve just heard doesn’t line up with the statements that were made here and here.” Or a very direct, “I feel that we’re avoiding talking about this. Does anyone have some thoughts as to why?” It is basically questioning interpretation, pointing to conflicting truths or highlighting what simply isn’t being discussed.

What never fails to surprise me about calling out the elephant, though, is the collective sigh that accompanies its acknowledgement. A realization of, “Oh, you see it too? I’m glad I’m not the only one.” Give the elephant a name, and you can finally address it. Address it well, and you might be able to ask it to leave.

I would be lying if pointing out the elephant didn’t feel risky. Because I don’t know who owns the elephant, necessarily, I don’t know who will take offence when I acknowledge it. But if my job is to guide a group to a new place of being, then the undiscussable elephant does represent a rather substantive and insurmountable barrier.

Undiscussables often become undiscussable because we are complicit in their creation. Tackling them, therefore, requires removing our complicity. We have to stop agreeing to interpret reality as being subjectively different. We need to stop avoiding difficult truths. And we need to be willing to have the courage to tackle tricky conversations. Oftentimes, those conversations are only difficult in terms of getting them started. Or because we fear how they might go. The elephant in the room is only there because we are studiously avoiding confronting it. Once seen, named and acknowledged, it often quickly disappears.

3 Comments to “Calling Out The Undiscussables”

  1. Patrick Caton says:

    Well said.

    In our roles as consultants this is precisely why we are hired, or at least we hope so.

    You can’t provide a solution unless you’re addressing the problems directly. Ignoring things doesn’t make them go away, it only entrenches them further

  2. Linda W. says:

    Thank you for a timely and wise article. I recently moved into a new position that doesn’t measure up to what I was told it would be, and I’ve felt myself disengaging as a result. The insights in your article have given me some ideas about how to have the conversation I’ve been avoiding.

  3. Santosh says:

    A very well written article!
    Elephant is so big but it remains invisible to all in a board room!
    What a pity!

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