What would it be like to discuss the undiscussable?

The elephant in the room, taboos, the great unsaid, the truth nobody wants to hear, burying your head in the sand — there is no shortage of expressions to describe all the factors that silently poison group dynamics. Ginka Toegel, professor of organizational behavior and leadership, and Jean-Louis Barsoux, lecturer and researcher at IMD Lausanne, prefer to talk about “undiscussables.”

“We define undiscussables as unexpressed thoughts and feelings that could help teams work more productively if they were tackled head on — and which become toxic if they’re ignored,” explains Jean-Louis Barsoux. But there’s nothing new under the sun: companies have been discussion-free zones for eons, with the boss making the decisions and his workers executing them. Today, however, in the age of free speech, information transparency, and empowerment, undiscussables are more problematic than ever. “Their harmfulness is exacerbated by new organizational methods,” Toegel says. “With the growing importance of collaborative activities — telephone, emails, meetings, and so forth — together with the rise in distributed business models, unspoken thoughts, misunderstandings, and discomfort signals go unnoticed more easily, creating all the more havoc.”

Fear, hypocrisy, conflict, the unconscious: what are your undiscussables?

But what are these undiscussables, in concrete terms? There are four major varieties. First: the “things you think but dare not say,” because of fear and a lack of confidence. Then there are the “things you say while you actually do something else,” which is motivated essentially by the need to protect the group or the desire to comply (outwardly at least) with your commitments; an example of this is when we talk about “reinventing the business,” although the actions taken are largely aimed at optimizing productivity or cutting down on expenses. The third type are the “things you feel but you cannot name,” such as tension, resentment, and frustration. The last category includes “things you do without realizing,” which are generally collective behaviors acquired over time (the inability to listen to each other in meetings, for instance). “These different pathologies are not mutually exclusive,” says Barsoux. “One team may have the four kinds of disorder simultaneously. They all have comparable negative effects, but I would say that the last category is probably the most difficult to manage since, by definition, no one on the team is aware of it. Very often an external point of view is needed for the members of the group to begin to realize what they’re doing.”

Simply ignoring the problem is a bad idea

Excerpt from Business Digest N°303, February 2020

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Françoise Tollet
Published by Françoise Tollet
She spent 12 years in industry, working for Bolloré Technologies, among others. She co-founded Business Digest in 1992 and has been running the company since 1998. And she took the Internet plunge in 1996, even before coming on board as part of the BD team.