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Discussing undiscuss-ables in business

Headshot for Richard Smoley.

Every company of any appreciable size has two organizational structures.

The first is known to everyone. Well-run companies have it down in flow charts: who is at the top, who reports to whom, and so on.

The second one is never written down, and perhaps cannot be. It is the silent but intricate web of associations among employees: who likes whom, who is having (or has had) an affair with whom, who doesn’t do any work, who is detested by everybody else (there always seems to be one).

These complexities in personal relationships may look like nobody else’s business, but they often affect productivity. In smaller companies, these relationships are usually between individuals. In larger companies, they might also be between departments and divisions. If the company is old enough, these loves and hates might go back for decades.

Personal issues can and do play a major role in how company operations are carried out, but it’s hard to view these things in the open. The problem of undiscussables—things that you aren’t supposed to talk about—remains a perennial one.

“Undiscussable” is only a manner of speaking. Management expert Dan Oestrich observes, “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.

“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,” Oestrich adds.

He cites some common examples:
• How people feel they are treated by their bosses
• Whether peers are pulling their weight
• Unreasonable workloads and deadlines
• Tensions around diversity
• Tensions around working styles
• Compensation

To these we could add favoritism and nepotism—two issues that often arise in family-owned companies, as many produce firms are.

Sue Thompson, a San Francisco management consultant and executive coach, points out that it’s especially difficult if the person causing problems holds power.

“I may be willing to rat on someone who is my peer, but if it’s my boss or the peer of my boss, I’m probably going to weigh—is it worth it?” she says.

What’s the solution? You already know: communication. How this is to be done is a little harder to say, especially when the most pressing and sensitive issues are the ones that are the most undiscussable: for example, the owner’s nephew who does as little work as possible.

Or a weekly golf game with senior management that amounts to an exclusive in-group. Other issues (failed romances, natural antipathies) may never be brought up and no doubt shouldn’t be.

Oestrich offers some tips for handling undiscussables among work teams:

1. Begin by acknowledging the problem to yourself.
2. Introduce the topic to the group.
3. Decide how you are going to address the issue. It may be helpful to sort out the issue into three areas: facts, perceptions, and feelings.
4. Have the conversation.
5. Move to action planning and decisions.
6. Follow up.

Finally, acknowledge the difficulties involved. Is an employee going to be able to stand up to an owner? Is someone going to be able to admit weakness or fault? What are the consequences if they do? Blame-free reporting is an ideal, but, as is quite clear, it is one that is rarely achieved in daily life.

Maybe the most important point is the first one that Oestrich lists: begin by admitting the problem to yourself.

You aren’t going to fix a problem that you don’t see—and certainly not one about which you’re lying to yourself.


Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.