What People Are Not Talking About at Work

Authors Daniel Oestreich and Kathleen Ryan discovered much during their 1990 field study of "undiscussables": the issues that people hesitate to talk about with those who can do something about the problem.

Friday, August 1, 2008
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The following data is based on their interviews of 260 people in 22 organizations and is excerpted from their book, Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, Second Edition (Jossey-Bass, 1998).

Chapter 5: Undiscussables: Secrets that Everyone Knows

Undiscussables are an important window into the dynamics of fear in the workplace. In our field study, we wanted to know what issues people were most likely to be hesitant to talk about. From the stories shared by study participants, undiscussables were tabulated according to the frequency with which they were mentioned. Figure 5.1 summarizes the results.

Management performance comprises by far the largest category of undiscussables. (See chart.) It includes a variety of subsets related to how managers behave: study participants made comments in general or overall terms about poor managerial performance; they expressed disappointment in the technical competence of their superiors; they were critical of the ways in which higher-level leaders managed people.

Skill in "people management" was the shortcoming in management performance most often mentioned as undiscussable. This area directly pertains to the way managers interact with and provide leadership to their employees and is heavily influenced by perceptions of interpersonal communication skills.

In effect, the largest single category of undiscussable issues was the immediate manager's interpersonal style.

Other aspects of management practice that were identified as undiscussable are:

* Decision-making -- how decisions get made and the quality of decisions;

* Favoritism;

* The boss' role in promotions, assignments, and terminations;

* Information flow that does not relate to decision making;

* Too heavy a workload;


* Assumptions about management motives; and

* Corporate politics.

Co-worker performance, at 10 percent, represents the second largest cluster of responses. It includes how well peers do the technical aspects of their jobs, as well as their personal conduct and interaction in the work environment.

Compensation and benefits includes concerns about pay equity and benefits as well as the way such systems are administered.

Equal employment opportunity practices combines any references to affirmative action, equal employment, or related aspects of workplace harassment or discrimination.

Change is a small category, but one that primarily reflects the concerns we heard about specific changes that had been implemented in various organizations we visited. People also talked to us about their perception of how much things in general seemed to be changing around them. (Given the rapid changes affecting workplaces since the original publication of this book, this category might be cited more frequently if our study was repeated today.)

Personnel systems other than pay includes organizational systems other than those that relate to compensation and benefits, such as hiring, promotion, termination or transfer, and employee development.

Individual feelings includes the personal emotions people have that relate to their work or work environment.

Performance feedback to the respondent reflects a lack of comment -- positive or negative -- about someone's performance.

Bad news refers to negative or critical messages or observations about individuals' or the organization's performance.

Conflicts are actual or potential interpersonal disagreements that escalate to a higher level of open conflict.

Personal problems include various types of trouble a person experiences that are not related to work -- divorce, illness in the family, financial troubles, drug and alcohol problems, or interpersonal difficulties.

Suggestions for improvements consists of ideas or suggestions about doing something differently or better.

Other undiscussables were a mixed bag of issues and individual concerns that fit no common pattern.

Management practice was a clear focus for undiscussables. People find it very difficult to speak up to others at higher levels in an organization about management style, actions, or competence. Undiscussables that fell in this category outnumbered any other category at least four to one.

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It seems clear from these data that undiscussables related to mistrust of management are the most common of all. This is a vital point. As you initiate efforts to drive out fear and deal with undiscussed issues, you need to be prepared for mistrust of leadership and specific leaders, perhaps including yourself, to surface.

In order to build trust, it is wise to take a nondefensive approach to hearing this perspective. Another way of saying all this is that [a] cycle of mistrust not only causes undiscussables; it is itself an undiscussable, perhaps the biggest one. The fact of mistrust, its triggers, and its damaging effects are the essence of what people cannot talk about.

Our findings did not reveal any basic differences from one level of the organization to the next in the types of undiscussables or people's willingness to speak up. We sense that factors such as the level of trust with a manager, financial obligations, interpersonal skills, and experience have a bigger role in determining whether a person speaks up than her or his level in the organization.

Human resources issues had a significant impact. Items related to HR issues and systems totaled 16 percent of undiscussables.

How individuals are recruited and hired, paid, evaluated, developed, and promoted -- or fired -- says a lot about what the organization believes about people. Perceived inequities, discrimination, and other forms of unfairness in these areas dramatically concern people.

Once again, negative views of management and of human resources seem tied together and are hard to talk about.

Dan Oestreich and Kathleen Ryan are co-authors of Driving Fear Out of the Workplace and The Courageous Messenger: How to Successfully Speak Up at Work.

As principal of Oestreich Associates, Dan has more than 20 years experience as a leadership consultant, coach and trainer. He assists teams -- from front-line to executive -- with building trust and effectively addressing undiscussable systems and relationship issues. He can be reached through his Web site.

Kathleen is known for her work in turning fear-based organizations into ones characterized by trust, collaboration, and high-performance. She has an extensive list of clients in government, healthcare, and the private sector and currently is at work on her third book, The Magic of Amazing Groups: How People Together Achieve Extraordinary Results, to be published by John Wiley in the spring of 2009.

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