Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables

Hear Dan read this post.

For more con­text on this post­ing, please see:

The Prac­tice of Leadership
Eight Lead­er­ship Practices
First Prac­tice: Know­ing Your Lead­er­ship Edge
Sec­ond Prac­tice: Devel­op­ing Your Com­fort Lev­el with Feedback
Third Prac­tice: Car­ing for Self
Fourth Prac­tice: Lead­er­ship and Influence
Sixth Prac­tice: On Collaborating
Sev­enth Prac­tice: Per­son­al Integrity
Eighth Prac­tice: Spir­i­tu­al Perspective

So what is an “undis­cuss­able”?

An undis­cuss­able is a work-relat­ed prob­lem that peo­ple hes­i­tate to address with those who can do some­thing about it. It isn’t that peo­ple don’t talk about undis­cuss­ables. They talk about them fre­quent­ly — in the hall­ways and park­ing lots, bath­rooms and across the cubi­cles. But it isn’t with the per­son or the peo­ple most often asso­ci­at­ed with the issues. AKA “the dead moose on the table,” it’s what peo­ple come out of a meet­ing to share with one anoth­er pri­vate­ly that should have been part of the agenda.

Undis­cuss­ables are more than just sen­si­tive top­ics; they are the “secrets every­one knows” and they can be incred­i­bly dis­rup­tive to trust in rela­tion­ships and the whole process of get­ting work done. Some of the most com­mon top­ics are how peo­ple feel treat­ed by their boss­es, whether their peers are pulling their weight, unrea­son­able work­loads and dead­lines, ten­sions around diver­si­ty, ten­sions around work­ing styles, com­pen­sa­tion — all kinds of stuff that peo­ple con­sid­er not smart to deal with too direct­ly and open­ly. We’ve learned to keep these issues behind the scenes because of our fears of reper­cus­sions from speak­ing up. Some­times those reper­cus­sions are fear of los­ing per­son­al cred­i­bil­i­ty and rep­u­ta­tion by being labeled (the terms, “trou­ble-mak­er” or “high main­te­nance” come to mind) and some­times the fear is just that it won’t do any good to be “the mes­sen­ger.” Either the mes­sen­ger gets shot or the mes­sage just falls on deaf ears.

While not every­thing needs to be laid bare in group set­tings, I believe there are sit­u­a­tions, many more per­haps than we’d like to believe, where it is up to the leader to get a tough issue on the table. It takes courage and patience, along with sen­si­tiv­i­ty. But it may be the only way to build the bridge forward.


I recall an expe­ri­ence work­ing with a small import/export firm that did a high vol­ume of trade. Because of the nature of their busi­ness, they rarely got togeth­er face to face. The dif­fer­ent inter­nal teams, espe­cial­ly Order Pro­cess­ing and Sales, were in fre­quent con­flict. The two own­ers of the com­pa­ny took the risk at their annu­al meet­ing to open the door to deal­ing with this undis­cuss­able con­flict — which of course they had been hear­ing about in the back­ground a lot. There were about 40 peo­ple from all depart­ments in the room. Sales was clus­tered on one side of the room, Order Proces­sors on the oth­er. The own­ers were ner­vous about get­ting start­ed. When I had prob­lems with the over­head pro­jec­tor, they both lept up to bus­tle around me with their indi­vid­ual fix­es, quib­bling with each oth­er about what to do.

Here’s how the open­ing of this con­ver­sa­tion went, in a con­densed form:

Junior Order Proces­sor (very sin­cere): “Well, I’d like to be the first to speak because I know exact­ly what all of you in Sales think of me. You think I’m a screw up and, you know, the fact is that when I first start­ed, I real­ly did­n’t know what I was doing. My com­put­er kept break­ing down, too, which did­n’t help mat­ters. I was way over my head and I kept mak­ing the same mis­takes. It was awful. There were a lot of days I thought about quit­ting but I hung in there because I thought it might get better…”

(Ner­vous laugh­ter in group)

Sales Man­ag­er: “Wow. Uh, I’m a lit­tle stunned. I thought you’d be real­ly defensive…I’m sur­prised you are tak­ing so much account­abil­i­ty. It’s not what I expect­ed. And believe me, I do know we have made things worse for you on occa­sion our­selves. I guess when peo­ple are mak­ing mis­takes in OP, over here we kind of use that as an excuse to go on the rampage.…”

Junior Order Proces­sor: “I want you to know I did­n’t blame you. I knew you were blam­ing me and I would have done the same.”

(Sev­er­al back and forths here as the Order Proces­sors and Sales Team share some obser­va­tions of times when there were prob­lems. There’s ten­sion in the air because it reminds peo­ple of some pret­ty bad days. Every­body else from dif­fer­ent depart­ments is as silent as can be).

Owner#1: “Well, let me just ask a ques­tion here, how is it you were so over­whelmed? Was­n’t there help available?”

Junior Order Proces­sor: “That’s what I’ve been try­ing to say. There was­n’t any­body around who could answer my ques­tions. There was­n’t any­body to call. My boss was always over­loaded and, as you know, she works on the oth­er side of the world. I was kind of plopped down in a chair in front of a screen and told to “just do it — you’ll fig­ure it out.”

Owner#2: “With­out train­ing of any kind?”

Junior Order Proces­sor: “That’s right, no train­ing. That’s why I don’t blame the Sales peo­ple. I’d have been mad, too, if I’d had to work with me.”

(A few chuck­les rip­ple across the room).

Owner#1 (Turn­ing to the HR Direc­tor for the firm): “What’s hap­pened to our train­ing pro­gram? Don’t we have a train­ing pro­gram for Order Proces­sors? I thought we had a train­ing program!”

HR Direc­tor (Straight arrow): “Don’t you remem­ber? You two guys (paus­ing, look­ing grim­ly back and forth between the own­ers), you two guys could­n’t agree on whether to fund it. You had a fight about it as I recall. You had a lot of fights about the bud­get. Any­way, as a result the train­ing plan has­n’t been fund­ed for the last year and a half and we also scrapped most of employ­ee ori­en­ta­tion. I can’t believe you don’t remem­ber this. You approved it.”

Own­er #1 (look­ing at Own­er #2, but begin­ning to chuck­le to him­self now): “You actu­al­ly opposed a train­ing program?”

Own­er #2: “I nev­er opposed a train­ing pro­gram, that was you!”

(Every­one laugh­ing watch­ing these two guys go at it).

Own­er #1, real­ly get­ting it now: “Ohhh, Nooooo! It’s Us!”

Own­er #2, (also get­ting it, loud­er now and also laugh­ing): “And what was it you said about the equip­ment? You said your #%*&@# com­put­er did­n’t work??!”

(Every­body laugh­ing real­ly hard)

A remark­able occur­rence, don’t you think? Peo­ple laugh­ing at how screwed up things had become, how inter­ac­tive it all was in a human, finan­cial, and tech­ni­cal knot, how the lead­ers were begin­ning to see their big con­tri­bu­tion to the prob­lem. I’ll tell you, as a facil­i­ta­tor, I could have giv­en that Junior Order Proces­sor about half my pay that day for the way he opened the con­ver­sa­tion. The oth­er half prob­a­bly should have gone to the Sales Man­ag­er who owned up to his team’s own prob­lem ram­pages. Both of them out there with just the gut­sy, unde­fend­ed truth of it all so that the whole com­pa­ny could wit­ness why and how the sys­tems weren’t work­ing. And I also think back to the pow­er of that for-real HR Direc­tor and to those two own­ers — their abil­i­ty to get it and actu­al­ly laugh at them­selves while they took the heat. Bless them all. I know they weren’t per­fect — or why would they have let this go on so long. But this was a team of peo­ple that had the open­ness and courage to let that con­ver­sa­tion roll. From this one prob­lem, we end­ed up with a whole clus­ter of action steps that involved bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tions between divi­sions, train­ing and ori­en­ta­tion, bud­get sys­tem revi­sions, access to uni­fied deci­sions — all kinds of good, sol­id action. And the major pay­off? An under­stand­ing by the two own­ers about the real impacts of their fights on the company.

Do you think every­one knew where the real prob­lem was before the dis­cus­sion even start­ed? You bet they did. And they’d been talk­ing about it in the halls for years, but not direct­ly with the owners.

Look, from my expe­ri­ence, it’s almost nev­er this easy to get at and con­struc­tive­ly address the undis­cuss­ables. Most of us, most of the time, take it so much more per­son­al­ly. It can be a lot hard­er. I remem­ber a retreat where one of the chief undis­cuss­ables was how much time super­vi­sors spent on breaks (they’d all park their trucks in front of a cer­tain cafe, that was how work­ers knew). The room of super­vi­sors and employ­ees thought this would be an easy and con­struc­tive thing to talk about togeth­er. It was all a mis­un­der­stand­ing, right? Except it was­n’t, and sud­den­ly we were in the mid­dle of “What gives you the right to com­ment on my break times? When did you earn your stripes?” It took a lot of facil­i­ta­tion and lead­er­ship to get that one slowed down enough for peo­ple to real­ly start lis­ten­ing to one another.

Oh, there’s just no space in this post to cov­er it all…Lord, the rooms I’ve been in (I know you’ve been in some of those same rooms, too). Some dis­cus­sions I facil­i­tat­ed worked out so well, some were just as hard as they could be and took some fol­low-up work to get to a pos­i­tive place. Along the way, I guess I’ve learned a cou­ple of things about the process and one cen­tral point about lead­er­ship: the leader must be able to be present non-defen­sive­ly — both as a per­son who may be on the receiv­ing end of oth­ers’ con­cerns and com­plaints and as some­one who must inter­vene when oth­ers are becom­ing defensive.

If you are a for­mal leader of a work team, and you want to advance the capac­i­ty of your group to han­dle undis­cuss­ables, here’s a sequence you might consider:

1. Begin by iden­ti­fy­ing to your­self the undis­cuss­able that needs to be addressed. They all have names, “Con­flict between Order Pro­cess­ing and Sales,” “Break Times for Super­vi­sors,” etc. This will be “code” for cer­tain peo­ple and cer­tain behav­iors that would need to be addressed open­ly. Now, do a gut check. Are you real­ly will­ing to move into this ter­ri­to­ry with a team? Lead­ers are often expect­ed to han­dle every sen­si­tive thing in the back­ground. But some­times that’s just not fea­si­ble. When prob­lems are mul­ti-dimen­sion­al, affect a lot of peo­ple, and are habit­u­al­ly avoid­ed, some­times the only way for­ward is through the group itself. If you don’t feel you can han­dle the sit­u­a­tion alone, can you hire a pro­fes­sion­al facil­i­ta­tor to help you?

2. Intro­duce the top­ic to the group as a pos­si­bil­i­ty for dis­cus­sion. Peo­ple gen­er­al­ly need soak time to decide whether they want to address a tough top­ic. Be clear that it will require non-defen­sive behav­ior, own­ing up to prob­lems and mis­takes, patience and mutu­al sup­port. Poll the group for readi­ness one by one. If they are ready you’ll feel it. If not, the group will look divid­ed and hes­i­tant. In that case, look in anoth­er direc­tion for solu­tions. Advo­cate for open­ness but don’t force the group. If there’s con­sent to pro­ceed, set your time and place.

3. When you get there, start by talk­ing about how to dis­cuss any undis­cuss­able. This is very dif­fer­ent from just div­ing in to dis­cussing the one in ques­tion — don’t let that hap­pen. Instead, decide togeth­er how to struc­ture this con­ver­sa­tion. Struc­ture helps peo­ple feel safer by pro­vid­ing a con­tain­er for their shared expe­ri­ences. First, estab­lish ground rules, and don’t be naive about them. Don’t say, for exam­ple, that we will “sep­a­rate the prob­lem from the per­son.” It’s pop­py­cock. If we could have done that, the issue would­n’t have become undis­cuss­able. Instead, help the group agree to rules that are about stay­ing open at tough moments, main­tain­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, mutu­al learn­ing, respect, for­give­ness, and sup­port, being will­ing to lis­ten and dis­close, and using one’s free­dom to iden­ti­fy feel­ings not act them out. Sec­ond, estab­lish a plan for the con­ver­sa­tion itself. My col­league Kathy Ryan, my co-author on Dri­ving Fear Out of the Work­place, found that by break­ing con­ver­sa­tions down into three pieces: facts, per­cep­tions, and feel­ings, much of the weird­ness and volatil­i­ty we are all prone to can be reduced.

4. Have the con­ver­sa­tion. If you use the facts, per­cep­tions, feel­ings mod­el, write this stuff down on three (or more) flipcharts or on a white board. Sort out the facts and per­cep­tions first, then focus on the feel­ings the per­cep­tions are dri­ving. Stick to the process and keep it mov­ing. It may feel risky to get even this far, so as leader you’ll need to show that you are with the group by ask­ing ques­tions, thank­ing folks for speak­ing up, prob­ing to help peo­ple artic­u­late what both­ers them the most, and, for sure, own­ing your part of the prob­lem. And don’t be afraid to come back to those ground rules. “Jeff, we agreed in the ground rules to avoid ‘flam­ing one anoth­er.’ Do you want to try to say that last thing you put on the table in a way that makes it eas­i­er to hear?” Gen­tle. Warm tone. Paus­ing to let Jeff decide. At its best the dis­cus­sion feels like real dia­logue where peo­ple can slow down, take it all in, hear con­tri­bu­tions from many van­tage points, then decide how to pro­ceed. Once peo­ple have gone to the trou­ble of specif­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ing their agreed upon facts from their con­flict­ing per­cep­tions and have owned up to feel­ings such as anger, frus­tra­tion, dis­ap­point­ment, or embar­rass­ment, they are usu­al­ly very ready for con­struc­tive problem-solving.

5. Move to action plan­ning and deci­sions. Usu­al­ly there will be a clus­ter of things to address, not just one or two. Brain­storm. What can we do dif­fer­ent­ly for each aspect? How do we pre­vent “knots” like this get­ting tied in the first place? It’s best for every­one in the room to have a piece of respon­si­bi­ity for help­ing things move for­ward con­struc­tive­ly, even if at first the prob­lem seemed to belong to only one or two people.

6. Fol­low-up. Don’t let the issue drop just because peo­ple got a chance to talk about it. Rather, bring peo­ple togeth­er again lat­er to col­lec­tive­ly assess progress on the action steps. Then keep brain­storm­ing to remove fur­ther bar­ri­ers to imple­men­ta­tion and to extend the group’s learning.

I’ve used this process in a wide vari­ety of con­texts — it’s just the basics, of course. Each sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent and requires dif­fer­ent plan­ning and set up. I’ve used this method to address all kinds of work­place issues such as per­cep­tions of racism in a man­age­ment team; polit­i­cal, pow­er-based rival­ries and agen­das in a group; high lev­el nepo­tism; the lead­er’s (prob­lem­at­ic) style; a group’s depen­den­cy on the leader; lack of inter­nal coop­er­a­tion; com­pe­ti­tion for suc­ces­sion; poor deci­sion-mak­ing process­es; poten­tial busi­ness fail­ures; incom­pe­tence among prin­ci­pals of a firm; lack of any mean­ing­ful strat­e­gy or pur­pose for the group — you name it. These are usu­al­ly the real rea­sons orga­ni­za­tions can’t achieve what they say they want to achieve — their inabil­i­ty to sit down togeth­er and deal with the big stuff, the stuff that every one of us would like to avoid.

It takes heart to do this work, gen­uine for­ti­tude. It’s messy. It’s not intel­lec­tu­al and it’s not a game. It’s any­thing but a tech­nique. And this is anoth­er rea­son why the capac­i­ty to be open and to reflect are such impor­tant lead­er­ship skills. Because the bot­tom line is that if you are lead­ing a dis­cus­sion of what’s been undis­cuss­able it will be about you in some way, your thoughts, your feel­ings, your style, and you will learn some­thing about your own propen­si­ty to defend and to stay in denial about prob­lems. I’m not say­ing this to sug­gest that the leader is always the prob­lem. I’m say­ing that lead­er­ship is often the solu­tion with a group strug­gling with its undis­cuss­ables. How you car­ry your­self in that moment, what your pres­ence is, how sta­ble you are in a dis­cus­sion that might be emi­nent­ly desta­bi­liz­ing for you and oth­ers — that’s where your lead­er­ship will be test­ed. That’s where every­one’s lead­er­ship will be tested.

Reflect on this:

    Could you have done what the Junior Order Proces­sor did?

    Could you have acknowl­edged your role in the prob­lem as the Sales Man­ag­er did?

    Could you have begun to ques­tion and inquire as the own­er did?

    Could you have stood up to the own­ers as the Human Resources Direc­tor did?

    Could you have acknowl­edged the source of the prob­lem with­out blame and con­vert­ed a poten­tial­ly painful moment into a shared dis­cov­ery, as did the owners?

Reflect­ing in this way, I believe that you will find the source code behind the page and be ready to lead the changes that will most ben­e­fit your world.

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  • That is an awe­some reminder of what abstract prin­ci­ples real­ly mean, Dan. Thanks! I am brave enough, strong enough, smart enough to do all those things. But I’m tricky, too. It’s hard for me to remem­ber to say what I’ve been used to leav­ing unsaid. And it’s hard to remem­ber how impor­tant it is admit a mis­take with­out mak­ing excus­es. I will remem­ber! Because a few times I have seen what you are describ­ing and it is beautiful.

  • Thank you, Mar­i­anne. You know, many peo­ple from all over the world have read this post — at least by Stat­counter sta­tis­tics — and yet you have been the only one to post a com­ment. Thank you so much for drop­ping by and tak­ing a moment to leave your thoughts. I sense we are all “tricky,” in the way I believe you mean it. Tricky with our­selves and with oth­ers so that we for­get what to do at the edge of risk. We have learned this pat­tern and we call it smart, but in a deep­er way, I believe it is real­ly part of our col­lec­tive, cul­tur­al unknow­ing. Giv­en this “edu­ca­tion” in the world, the soul can become, as Park­er Palmer would say, a very shy animal.

    Best to you.

  • Wow, lots of great stuff here, start­ing with the term undis­cuss­ables, which is new to me (but extreme­ly evoca­tive … and provocative).

    I see undis­cuss­able prob­lems per­vad­ing not only busi­ness, but pol­i­tics (espe­cial­ly in the cur­rent U.S. admin­is­tra­tion), reli­gion and fam­i­ly life as well.

    I’m struck by the sto­ry you relat­ed, and how it is yet anoth­er exam­ple of a theme that sur­faces through­out many of your posts, that I would char­ac­ter­ize as “strength through vulnerability”.

    I real­ly like Kathy’s three-step process of focus­ing on “facts, per­cep­tions, and feel­ings”. This is sim­i­lar to a pro­to­col we use in the Mankind Project, except we use slight­ly dif­fer­ent terms and add two steps (which are addressed in oth­er por­tions of your post): data (= facts), judg­ments (= per­cep­tions?), feel­ings, wants (i.e., what do I want, for myself, not for oth­ers?) and account­abil­i­ty (do I see how this con­flict is about me, my judg­ments, etc., and how it high­lights one or more areas where I have per­son­al work to do?). It typ­i­cal­ly requires a very safe con­tain­er to enable that kind of deep work to be done … which I imag­ine is not very com­mon in most workplaces.

  • Joe

    Thanks for the great com­ments, Joe. I par­tic­u­lar­ly like your refine­ments of the facts, per­cep­tions, feel­ings mod­el. Very cool.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Hi Dan, just lis­tened to and read your post on undis­cuss­ables. Real­ly great. 

    Here are some of my thoughts. I agree with you that the leader is not always the prob­lem. But I am afraid that we are see­ing a cul­ture of lead­ers today, led by George Bush, who are unwill­ing to con­sid­er that they are any part of the problem. 

    I remem­ber a client who want­ed me to help improve the qual­i­ty of per­for­mance in his orga­ni­za­tion. After about a year, I came to the trou­bling thought that — HE WAS THE BIGGEST IMPEDIMENT to qual­i­ty in his orga­ni­za­tion. I also knew from the many con­ver­sa­tions that I had already had with him that he would not be will­ing or able to explore this idea or accept my analy­sis. So I con­tin­ued to try to help his orga­ni­za­tion. Then, one day, he was fired by his boss. I came away with a hope­less feel­ing — that no one could help this per­son face the real­i­ty of his situation. 

    And I am afraid we are there now in many orga­ni­za­tions. I just read that Wal­Mart costs the state of Wash­ing­ton $12 mil­lion a year in work­er med­ical expens­es. Who can say to Wal­Mart — you might want to change this prac­tice of pay­ing peo­ple so lit­tle that they need to use state health care ser­vices? Who in Wal­Mart would be ready to admit, as did the coura­geous peo­ple in the sto­ry you told did, that, yeah, we need to change this. 

    I’m dis­cour­aged by the lead­ers of cor­po­ra­tions today. I have worked with a num­ber of them. I don’t see the inner resources nec­es­sary to do the kind of reflec­tive think­ing that you are advo­cat­ing. I haven’t giv­en up, but I am discouraged.

    Keep writ­ing, Dan. You are doing won­der­ful work here. I’ll keep read­ing and lis­ten­ing too. Maybe I need to change my think­ing about all of this. I’ll think about it.


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