It’s finally time to discuss the undiscussables of the workplace

We often speak of the elephant in the room – a metaphor for things everyone senses or knows but doesn’t talk about. There are actually many elephants in the room – undiscussables – and before addressing them it helps to create a topography.

A recent article in Sloan Management Review by leadership professor Ginka Toegel and researcher Jean-Louis Barsoux of IMD business school in Switzerland defines four types of undiscussability. Their schema helps to figure out more clearly why full, effective discussion is missing in your organization:

Think but dare not say: Risky questions, suggestions and criticisms that are self-censored because people fear the consequences of speaking about them. That fear, of course, can be real or imagined. “The main driver of this fear is often team leaders with an emotional, erratic management style and a reputation for responding harshly when people disagree with them,” they note.

Say but don’t mean: Alongside unspoken truths, there are spoken untruths – discrepancies between what the team says it believes or finds important and how it behaves. This gap between what’s said and done is visible to all but ignored. The result is cohesion based on shared illusion.

Feel but can’t name: This refers to negative feelings that are difficult for people to label or express constructively. “Faulty perceptions mostly go uncorrected because the antagonists don’t test their inferences. Based on their own world views and self-protective instincts, they presume they know why the other party is acting in a particular way and let that drive their behaviour. This leads to escalating tensions,” they note.

Do but don’t realize: Unconscious behaviours that are hurting the team dynamic but aren’t clear so colleagues jump to the wrong conclusions about what is behind team inefficiencies and poor performance. The academics say this can be the most difficult to uncover. As an example, they cite a CEO who felt there was a lack of debate and engagement. That was correct, but not being discussed was that his own behaviour led his team to believe he didn’t care about their opinions.

“The more undiscussables there are, the more difficult it is for the team to function. If they aren’t discussed collectively, they can’t be managed intelligently,” the academics say.

Usually we believe that building comfort and candour will allow undiscussables to surface. But this essay shows it’s more complicated than that. You need to diagnose your own team situation and then tackle the specific undiscussables you face. For “say but don’t mean,” the academics suggest team leaders must first expose the hypocrisy of saying but not meaning and acknowledge their part in the charade. They can begin the fix by asking the team to complete this sentence: “We say we want to …, but in fact, we….” For “do but not realize” they advise the team leader to invite a trusted adviser from another part of the organization or an external facilitator to observe the team and give feedback on communication habits.

The other two types of undiscussables are more volatile. In the second listed, “feel but can’t name,” there might well be feuding parties that need help in understanding the personal differences that are leading to a lack of team chemistry. But again, recognizing the nature of the problem and how it contributes to important issues not being properly aired can be a big step toward a solution.

The first type, of course, is the most common. People feel they can’t be candid. Often the team leader and/or organizational culture is suppressing honest discussion but sometimes that’s not true or the leader wants to change the dynamic. In Radical Candor, consultant Kim Scott points to one-on-one meetings as the best opportunity to really listen to team members and find out their perspective on what’s working and what isn’t. For that to happen, she urges you to consider it their meeting, not yours, and allow them to set the agenda – a hard thing for leaders to do.

The Sloan report puts the leader in the driver’s seat for seeking solutions. But a team problem requires a team solution and anyone should be capable of raising the problem and suggesting action. It will take courage to raise the issue in some cases; in other situations, team leaders may be receptive because they are not alert to the nature of the undiscussable or they have been holding back from acting.

The elephant in the room is not a joke. It tramples our best intentions and work.


  • Being wrong is part of the decision-making process legendary investor Peter Bernstein noted in a 2004 interview: “You just have to be prepared to be wrong and to understand that your ego had better not depend on being proven right.”
  • You can change the way people get what they want in delivering products and services or you can change what they want, says entrepreneur Seth Godin. Both paths are available but they are very different.
  • Buyouts generated by optimistic CEOs and pessimistic CFOs have the best odds of success, research shows. That particular combination leads to fewer mergers and acquisitions and less likelihood of duds compared to other combinations of optimism and pessimism between those two key figures.




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