Engaging Undiscussable Issues

Friday, August 1, 2008
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Catching wind of an undiscussable in your organization can be a disheartening experience. The announcement isn't broadcast in the company newsletter, but you can be assured the word has spread. There is a moose on the table, an elephant is in the room or a 900 lb. gorilla has taken up residence.

Everyone knows what is going on except for those who are the subject of the undiscussable. They remain oblivious and have a version of the story that is guaranteed to be different from the others.

As in the case of a large animal that stays too long in a closed room, the presence of an undiscussable can create a toxic work environment if left unattended. Something needs to be done, but what? It is not as easy as pointing to the moose on the table, asking the 900 lb gorilla to step aside or showing the elephant in the room the door.

Handling an undiscussable requires an approach similar to how one would greet any formidable creature -- use caution, show respect and exercise skill. Here are a few tips for how to approach the moose, gorilla or elephant in your organization.

Use Caution: Avoid Reckless Engagements with the Undiscussable

Telling someone or a group of people to have a difficult and candid conversation about a company's undiscussable is the worst possible advice to give. Like poking a dangerously large creature with a pointed stick, it will only create agitation and the result is usually disastrous.

Too often, human resource executives and consultants call together a dysfunctional team or division and tell them to get everything out on the table. Soon, everyone lets it rip and there is blood on the floor. The aftermath of sore feelings, escalated tension and further entrenched views only serves as a confirmation that the undiscussable should remain undiscussable.

People don't share what is undiscussable with those directly involved largely because of the highly charged emotional assessments they hold about the other person.

The assessments consist of private explanations about why others do what they do, attributions about each other's motives and the coup de grace, how the other person is accountable for the difficulty. These thoughts are held with a high degree of certainty. When they are uncorked, look out for an emotional explosion.

Show respect

Undiscussables, or what business theorist Chris Argyris refers to as defensive routines, arise in organizations through a combination of human behavior and a limit of human awareness where we fail to see how our interactions are part of a system of unproductive behavior.

Respecting an undiscussable is not an exercise in politeness or withdrawing in deference to its presence. Respect is an acknowledgement of the daunting task any human resource executive faces when approaching the parties involved in a defensive routine. How one mentally approaches the task can make all the difference. 

Human resource executives often fall into two mental traps when encountering an undiscussable.

Human resource executives often think that they have to play the referee who makes sure that everyone plays fairly and by the rules. Even though they listen to both sides of the story, they end up feeling caught in the middle or accused of taking sides. The neutral position is desirous, but is ultimately not sufficient. 

It is Not Something to be Fixed

The second trap is thinking that an organizational defensive routine is something to be fixed. It is not a mechanical problem, but an interpersonal one. There is no sure-fire method of dealing with them by reorganizing, instituting policies or replacing people. They are a product of our thinking and acting together played out in the arena of intergroup or interpersonal conflict. Any intervention requires people sitting down to talk. How the conversation goes largely depends on how all parties are thinking about each other.

The Aura of "Externality"

Any interventionist, be that an outside consultant or internal human resource expert, will bump up against what Argyris calls the "aura of externality." The most tenacious aspect of an organizational defensive routine is the perception that it is external to one's self and range of influence.

Seeing the problem as "out there" is a hard perception to shake loose. When viewed from one's own perspective, what one sees is how others are behaving badly.

The first successful move toward unlocking organizational defensive routines is a shift of thinking away from seeing others as the problem and discovering how everyone's thinking and behavior contributes to the creation of the defensive routine.

Be the Puzzle Master

It helps to think of organizational defensive routines as puzzles and one's role as a puzzle master. A puzzle master surveys the pieces looking for how the pieces fit together -- the interlocking shapes come together to form a complete picture. Seeing the whole picture means understanding how all the players are interacting together to create a defensive routine.

Get Curious About Unintended Results

A good place to start is with the unintended results of a defensive routine. Whether it is an organization-wide, team or interpersonal defensive routine, it is most likely a tangle of relationships gone bad -- a result no one intentionally desired. Ask the question, "If no one intended these results, how did our thinking and acting together create this result?" Following this line of inquiry can spark self-reflection and curiosity.

Exercise Skill

Actually discussing an undiscussable requires an ample amount of patience and skill. When the time comes to hold a discussion, the chances of success increase when all parties are able to see how their thinking and actions contribute to the difficulty at hand.

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Getting to that point requires a full use of the skill set described as Model II or Mutual Learning by Argyris and Donald Schön, another influential business thinker, who had a long collaboration with Argyris. Whether the intervention is conducted by the internal human resource staff or and external consultant, the interventionist needs to be proficient in:

* The ability to ask high-quality inquiries in order to understand how people are thinking, what they are up against and what led them to act in the way they did.

* The ability to help others to separate intention from an action's impact, so as to understand how people inadvertently contribute to the defensive routine.

* The ability to use the Ladder of Inference as a means for helping people express their views, provide concrete illustrations and understand how they jumped to their conclusions. The Ladder of Interference, developed by Argyris and Schön, helps guide users through their reasoning process as they collect data, select and interpret the data, reach conclusions and take action.

It didn't take a day for an undiscussable to take shape, so it won't disappear after one meeting.

Even if the first round of an intervention doesn't go as smoothly as hoped, after-the-fact reflection is likely to occur. Individuals walk away thinking about what was said, review regrets and are willing to take a different tact if given the chance. 

Double back and check on how things sit after discussing an undiscussable. Ask all parties, "What did you learn from our session?" or "What would you have said or done differently?"

No human resource executive can unlock defensive routines single handedly. The challenge is assembling people with the sufficient skill to help those stuck in defensive routines. Even then, a successful intervention will depend on how well all parties are able to reflect on their own contribution to making critical issues undiscussable.

Bill Noonan is an educator and consultant with an international practice including many leading learning organizations. His practice includes facilitation, executive coaching, conducting workshops and designing Web-based learning programs: Forging Breakthroughs with Peter Senge (Ninth House) and Productive Business Dialogues and Managing Difficult Conversations (Harvard Business Review Publishing Company). He is the author of Discussing the Undiscussable: A Guide to Overcoming Defensive Routines in the Workplace, published by Jossey-Bass (2007)

He received a B.A. from University of San Francisco, master's degree from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union/ UC Berkeley. He teaches at Marylhurst University in the business department, and the religious studies department. He teaches the philosophy series at Columbia Gorge Community College. He can be reached at

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