Skip to main content

What is undiscussable in your organizational culture?

  • 13 January 2016
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

What are the “undiscussables” in your workplace? Is there something that almost everyone knows but no one mentions…? Welcome to the heart of organizational culture! Undiscussables are essential to understanding company culture, let alone change it.

Last year, the New York Times revealed that there was “an elephant in the room” at Harvard business school. The undiscussable was gender equity resulting in females getting lower grades. Also, both female staff and students felt pressure to dress well, ‘look hot’ and not be ‘too assertive.'

Each organization has their own taboos and undiscussables. They are an intricate and crucial part of organizational culture. In the workshops that we do after conducting the OCAI survey, we address these issues as well because they help better understand the current culture - and what could be hard to change.

How to name the elephant in the room?

Asking people to name their workplace undiscussable, is not something you do at 9 A.M. when the OCAI culture workshop gets started. It takes time, warming up and trust. During the workshop pairs of people get the assignment to make a list of events, examples, specific behaviors and things they hear people say, that illustrate their current culture. This is necessary to add qualitative information to the quantitative OCAI culture survey outcomes - to better understand how specifically their typical company culture takes place on a daily basis. How these values and beliefs lead to certain behaviors and decisions.

Next, the pairs present their lists to the whole workshop group and afterward the plenary group earmarks these examples as Great and Not so Great. It’s a rough assessment of Good versus Bad, the first draft of Keep Doing versus Stop Doing.

Coming up with these lists of palpable examples of current culture is quite a task - but judging them as good or bad seems always easier. People seem to agree on what is right or not. One crucial question to ask next, is: What did we forget on this list? What topic or example is missing that everyone knows but no one talks about openly, normally?

The workshop circle as a safe space

The workshop is our safe space where we have established special rules for engagement and commitment. In this special space, people can discuss undiscussables without immediate correction or repercussions - and as group, decide afterward what they want to communicate to those who weren’t attending the workshop and this special safe space. Sometimes, this question goes unanswered. Either because people are still scared, or there are no real taboos. But sometimes, crucial things come up that are important to know because they make a difference when trying to change the culture.

Terri Kruzan’s guest post at the Leadership & Change blog about undiscussables is very recognizable and interesting to read as well. Sometimes the undiscussables aren’t as dramatic as the gender issue as Harvard - but they do have effect on the culture. Kruzan guides honest culture conversations with clients, and she tells how one CEO got angry when someone in the room proffered that promotions at the company seemed to be based more on past favors, personal relationships and being part of the “in-group” than on producing results.

Terri shares: “This was a telling moment in the session, and as a good process consultant I took a deep breath and waited to see how the other members of the leadership team would respond. The company’s COO said: “John, do you remember how you and I were golf buddies before I joined the company – and how we still play golf together every third Saturday of the month? And do you recall how we sit down each month and decide who to join our foursome so we can get to know the younger folks in the company? I now realize that you and I see our Saturday golf times as good talent management work, but other folks interpret it differently. Being invited to play golf with us is a highly coveted invitation into our “in-group” and other division presidents and managers have copied our informal approach to talent management and have created their own in-groups.”

Next, a dialogue evolved on how the “in-group” practice played out and how leaders handled the hypocrisy sensed by employees. The group discussed how important the company’s building & maintaining relationships value was to the success of the company, but how it may be taken to an extreme when applied to talent management.

As you can see, just naming the undiscussable can lead to "honest culture conversations" that are the basis for sustainable change.

  • What is your approach to unlocking an organization’s undiscussables?