How Undiscussables Erode Team Performance and What to Do About It

Ever heard of the term “undiscussables”?

It was Professor Chris Argyris from Harvard who first coined the term “non-discussables” over 30 years ago, which later became known as “undiscussables”.

Simply put, undiscussables are topics that create threat or embarrassment in a group or team, and are consequently avoided.

Argyris proposed that undiscussables, in a team, or more widely across an organisation, lead to managerial mediocrity, poor organisational performance and malaise.

That’s right malaise. I bet you haven’t heard that word for a while.

Why malaise?

Because as employees avoid contentious issues they increasingly do not question or challenge the behaviour of the organisation, or the groups to which they belong. They become apathetic and overly accepting of the status quo. They demonstrate malaise.

In this article, I’ll take you through the below topics, and provide you with 2 templates you can start using today to impact your team’s conversations and decision making in new ways:

  • A demonstration of undiscussables
  • How undiscussables work
  • How undiscussables get generated in the first place
  • How to avoid undiscussables

A demonstration of undiscussables

I’m reminded of an Executive team I was helping not so long ago.

They were talking about how to better energise their second level of management when the Chief Financial Officer said,

“It’s obvious to me that we have not made that group of managers accountable enough. Too many of them are coasting, and it’s time to deal directly with under par performance”

After he said that, there was a moments lull. The CFO was a long term member of the executive team and he knew the numbers like no one. He had the kind of rank in the team that expertise and longevity usually provide.

Finally, someone said,

“That sounds good, how shall we make that happen?”

The CFO replied by saying,

“I’m already implementing a system in my next level down that has opened a few eyes and I think we can apply it right across the organisation.”

A short pause was then followed with the CEO saying,

“OK. That sounds promising. Let's hear more about that, and get some traction on this.”

A little later in the conversation, I drew the group's’ attention to the collective pause that happened when the CFO made his comments. I also shared my curiosity, wondering if there may be more that might be said about that topic.

We then had another awkward pause. I felt a bit nervous, but managed to contain myself and wait for a few moments.

It was then that the Chief Digital Officer said,

“I suppose I have a somewhat different take on it. I do agree that our next level down needs to step up, but I see them as a mostly earnest group who is currently failing to proactively provide solutions. I think they do care, but seem too passive. If I’m right, creating more clarity on expectations, and stronger measures where they are not met, is good but insufficient. I don’t think those measures will stimulate the kind of fresh thinking we need. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think it deserves more thought.”  

Now the Chief Digital Officer was sharing something that she did not say before. Until then, her thoughts regarding the CFO’s solution were withheld. That is, her views, that in part contradicted the CFO, had actually become undiscussable for her.

In other words, it had felt too risky, or perhaps too hopeless, to offer a contradictory point of view. If this were to keep happening, then the health of the team would suffer. There would most likely be a growing list of topics that go unraised. Ultimately a kind of malaise emerges.

I wonder what consistent “undiscussables” were present at the AMP organisation, that led to malaise, which in turn allowed poor Executive behaviour to go unchallenged.

In a team, undiscussables lead to poor decisions, because they stifle the robust conversations required to thoroughly interrogate various strategies, create learning, and ultimately make effective decisions. Interestingly, Argyris also maintained that the ability to do this is especially necessary in a world becoming increasingly complex. I think that’s our world.

In other words, undiscussables prevent learning, and result in poorly conceived decisions.

But wait, is that true? Aren’t poor executive decisions the result of rushed or bad analysis, or poor advice by experts?

Perhaps, but those factors are TINY in comparison to deep and far reaching impact of prevailing undiscussables in an Executive or managerial team.

How undiscussables work

When issues emerge that prompt feelings of being threatened or embarrassed, groups tend to navigate around the issue or “cover up”. In addition, they do not discuss that they are avoiding the issue and thereby cover up the “cover up”.

That’s a little bit complicated isn’t it? The group avoids an issue, then importantly, does not discuss that they are avoiding the issue.

undiscussables

Professor Argyris called this “fancy footwork”. This group behaviour can be very subtle, and usually goes by unnoticed.  It is produced in milliseconds, is spontaneous, automatic and unrehearsed. It’s actually very skillful, but at the same time, highly ineffective. That’s why Argyris called it skillful incompetence.

How undiscussables get generated in the first place

Here is the moment of conception of an undiscussable. Someone uses their rank to push a point, or minimise or silence a point, and those with less rank don’t feel comfortable or safe enough to contradict the more powerful. They sit on it. Their unexpressed thoughts and feelings become another layer of undiscussables.

What do I mean by rank?

Rank can be gained by various means, and is always contextual. In organisations, rank might be held by someone who is higher in the hierarchy, or been in the organisation longer, or has more qualifications, or very expert in a particular area, or maybe just older. Actually rank can built through many various means.

Usually, those with more rank, and therefore with more power at their disposal, are not aware how they have created an undiscussable. Instead, if they are the manager, they might even complain that their team don’t come up with new approaches, don’t show initiative, are not proactive enough, and lack the big picture.

Sadly, the manager’s unconscious use of their rank is repeatedly creating undiscussables, and actually making the team apathetic. Creating the malaise they very much do not want.

What are 'undiscussables' and how can you avoid them? Use these 2 templates to start impacting your team's conversations and #decisionmaking in new ways.

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How to avoid undiscussables

A template for bosses

When you are the boss, make your points more skillfully, and become more aware of when you are resting on your status, or rank, to carry the point.

First, when you are advocating a position, be sure to be clear if you really are making a proposition, or giving a command but trying to make it sound more collaborative. Don’t do the latter.  Nobody is fooled, and it’s irritating for teams.

So, assuming you really do want open, challenging conversation on a particular topic, use the following broad template structure. It will keep you honest and less subtly manipulative:

  • I believe we should ..... (your reasoning)
  • A recent example of this is ..... (actual real life examples or data of some kind)
  • Could anyone comment on my reasoning? What am I missing?

Notice that I’m suggesting that when you propose your position, you connect that position to your reasoning and associated data. Plus, and importantly, ask for comments on your reasoning, not your proposal. 

A template for those with less organisation rank

If you are the one who has less rank, and tempted to withhold your thoughts or feelings in the face of those with more rank, try this template to make more skillful inquiry:

  • I hear that you are proposing ..... (the other person's position)
  • Can I ask you to say more about how you got to that positions, by explaining your reasoning, and any data or examples you have to support that reasoning?

It’s easy to write this, but it can be very challenging to actually say this to someone who assumes that their rank, and experience, makes their point of view self-evidently superior.

It challenges that person to greater transparency around their views, and breaks the unspoken rule that some or all of their contributions should go by unchallenged.

When someone with less organisation rank skillfully inquires in this way, with someone who has more rank, they are drawing on a different kind of rank.

They are drawing on the power provided by self-awareness, self-confidence and superior communication skills that prevail even when under pressure. In that moment, that power has matched the power provided by organisation rank that the other party has.

Conclusion

It is vital to become aware of the undiscussables in your team. There is no doubt that the more you have, the more they will impact your team’s decision making

I want to add here that it’s extremely difficult to do this work, especially at the beginning, without help. This is where a skillful advisor is a great help. Once you have developed conversational patterns that make undiscussables visible, you can drop the help.

As has been shown elsewhere, superior executive teams are more likely to get help from outside to become effective teams.

I’d like to encourage you to look carefully at the templates I have provided, and practice these new language patterns in safe environments where you are the boss, and when in a position of less rank within your team. Notice the changes.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts below, or request for help if your team seems to be suffering from the effect of undiscussables.

Please contact us if you want help to increase the energy, vitality and effectiveness of your senior team. Even if your team is hardworking, there may also be malaise in connection to challenging old ideas and creating new, needed approaches.

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