Discussing the Undiscussible
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

Promise Not to Tell is the title of a book by Carolyn Polese (1985) about sexual abuse of children. The title of this book symbolizes sardonically the behavior of the abuser in contributing to the strong, pervasive patterns of secrecy that develop in families in which abuse is occurring. These patterns not only make it a near-impossibility to discuss the abuse, but the fact that this is undiscussible is, itself, undiscussible. Attempts by the victim to talk about the undiscussible are typically treated as "deviant" behavior and are met with strong sanctions, leading the individual who may be rash enough to test the norms to regret the "deviation," and often to doubt his/her own perceptions and feelings.

Organizational consultants frequently hear this same injunction from individuals in a client organization. Golembiewski (1985) provides an insightful discussion of the difficulties and blockage that such injunctions and an attempt to operate with unrestricted confidentiality can cause in consultation. He presents a cogent case for basing organizational consulting relationships on responsibly restricted confidentiality.

The focus of this paper is not on the injunctions and restrictions faced by consultants, but on the underlying patterns of secrecy and undiscussibility that exist and harm the effectiveness of individuals in organizations. I find substantial opportunities for significantly improving the effectiveness of individuals and organizations by helping them become more aware of and competent in removing the barriers of undiscussibility related to important issues that they need to manage well.

A recent example of undiscussibility at two levels occurred in a conflict between two vice presidents, identified here as B and C. They were the two most important stakeholders in a major systems development project in a moderately large company. I had been brought in after problems had become severe, with the company facing the possibility of scrapping a system under development or living with a fundamentally flawed system, after spending $3 million over two years and being within two months of the postponed implementation date. As B spoke to me of an episode in their continuing conflict, he was obviously upset and emotionally and physically affected by it. He concluded with, "but I don't want you to do anything about this or tell C" (the level of "promise not to tell"). I agreed but asked, "have you considered talking with C about this?" B replied, "I couldn't possibly do that - she would just attack and dump on me, and besides, it wouldn't do any good..." (the level of systemic undiscussibility). C was equally unwilling to engage in direct talk about the conflict situation, saying, among other things, "I've had it with B; he is incompetent and should be replaced; I'm going to proceed with what I think is best, without dealing with B." Since managing this issue well, a matter of critical importance to the company, required integrated efforts by these two and their functional divisions, undiscussibility presented a substantial problem. The undiscussibility was not just a function of the conflict stage at which I entered the situation; it soon became apparent that there had been substantial defects in the many discussions between the two divisions throughout the two-year project.

I have tried for many years to learn more about why apparently competent and well-intentioned executives and other individuals in organizations systematically bypass and fail to deal adequately with the issues they say are most important for them to manage well. Although the work of many individuals has helped in this learning process, I am particularly indebted to the work in action science (related to but somewhat different from action research); a good general reference to this body of work is Argyris, Putnam, & Smith (1985).

The deficiencies in discussing critical issues adequately range from conscious, intentional bypassing to situations in which the individuals think they are dealing with the issues effectively. It is extremely difficult to change the usually political, self-motivated intentional bypasses. Let us concentrate on the larger group of situations in which the deficiencies are unintentional and largely unknown. Consistently, in situations where critical issues are not managed adequately, there is a lack of sufficiently precise, complete, relevant, timely, and verifiable discussion among the appropriate individuals about the issues they most want to manage effectively. No quantity of discussions can compensate for the deficiency of one or more of these essential qualities in the discussions.

A colleague, Don Rossmoore, and I have analyzed over a hundred cases in which one or both of us was the consultant, to identify conditions associated with "success" of the consulting project, defined as accomplishment of one or more key strategic objectives that were at risk at the time of the project initiation. We found that:

Further, indicating the critical role played by power figures, we found that:

How can we, as consultants, help individuals learn how to make the previously undiscussible discussible?

First, the individuals need to learn how to identify when important issues are being bypassed, including having discussions in which the five essential qualities identified above are deficient. One key indicator of this is that there is a significant variance between the public and private talk about the issue -- i.e., an individual finds that she/he or others are speaking quite differently about an issue when in private with selected individuals than in meetings or in discussions with key power figures associated with the issue. Similarly, it is useful for a consultant to ask the individual, when learning about a discussion regarding an important issue: what were you thinking but not saying? Although there is almost always some public-private variance, finding significant variance in discussions about important issues is a warning sign that makes this issue a good candidate for further work.

Second, it is necessary to help a client learn about and find ways through or around barriers to the discussibility of an issue. Rossmoore (1989) provides an approach that I have found to be potent. He suggests that organizational clients frequently are constrained by a dilemma that they are unaware of or, at least, have not articulated explicitly. The dilemma usually arises from underlying assumptions that are not in the client's explicit consciousness. For example, a pervasive dilemma for managers is: "if I say I don't know, I will lose respect and be disqualified to lead; however, if I don't say I don't know, we can not improve our current performance on this issue." A basic underlying assumption could be: not knowing automatically disqualifies a leader. Leaders frequently manage this dilemma by inferring knowledge, but remaining somewhat vague and ambiguous in public, while searching for knowledge privately. "Paradoxically, the variance between such public and private talk by a leader bars timely access to the knowledge he/she seeks" (Rossmoore, 1989, p.20).

Third, after helping a client articulate an implicit dilemma and underlying assumptions that produce it, the next step is to help the client consider plausible alternative assumptions that do not lead to the dilemma. In the example above, a plausible alternative assumption is: leadership can enhance itself by acknowledging ignorance and producing productive, timely learning. Additional help is then provided to help the client design and act out ways of operating from the alternative assumption(s).

It should be noted that this approach has only coincidental linkage with some of the humanistic values such as trust and openness (which I must acknowledge are still very important to me) that many of us advocated to organizations during the 1960's, but which failed to provide a framework from which to produce organizational improvements reliably. I am not advocating another version of categorical openness in organizations.

I am excited about the opportunities for helping individuals and organizations improve their effectiveness through assisting them in having sufficiently precise, complete, relevant, timely, and verifiable discussion among the appropriate individuals about the issues they most need to manage effectively. Perhaps there will be new opportunities for dialogue about this.


* Published in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 3(3), 265-269 (1992).
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Last modified July 6, 1998 Copyright 1992, 1998 Rex Mitchell