The 4 types of team undiscussables teams should start discussing more
Tackling undiscussables, a set of issues that are holding the team back but the team is reluctant to discuss, is a good example of taking an interpersonal risk in support of the greater benefit of the team. The reluctance to discuss them often stems from fear that doing so will sap the team’s energy, surface unresolvable issues, or expose the person to blame for the part they played in creating the issue. Where in fact, it is often the case where tackling the undiscussables brings relief, boosts the team energy and generates team goodwill.
Toegel and Barsoux offer a taxonomy with 4 types of undiscussables, differing in their source, the way they should be approached, and the sequence in which they should be tackled:
- You THINK but dare not say — risky questions, suggestions, and criticisms that are self-censored out of fear of the consequences of speaking. Often due to past erratic or uncharitable responses from team members. Beginning the fix: leaders can explicitly acknowledge they may unwittingly have created a climate of fear or uncertainty, invite discussion about sensitive issues, draw out concerns, promise immunity to those who share dissenting views, and lighten the weight of their authority in the room.
- You SAY but don’t mean — spoken untruths. Discrepancies between what the team says it believes or finds important, and how it behaves. These issues are often left undiscussed not based on fear as much as on an unquestioned and distorted sense of loyalty to the team, its leader, or the organization. The intent is to maintain the team’s cohesion, even if that cohesion is based on a shared illusion. Beginning the fix: leaders need to make the hypocrisy of saying but not meaning explicit and acknowledge their part in the charade. Collecting anonymous examples of empty proclamations (“We say we want to…, but in fact, we….”) and challenging the overprotective mindset that inhibits the airing of criticism can kick-start the fixing process.
- You FEEL but can’t name —negative feelings that are difficult for team members to label or express constructively, often failing to see the difference between manifesting one’s anger or resentment and discussing it. At a more basic level, they are not discussed because the antagonists experiencing negative emotions don’t test their inferences. Based on their own worldviews and self-protective instincts, they presume they know why the other party is acting in a particular way and let that drive their behavior. This leads to escalating tensions. Beginning the fix: help the feuding parties investigate the differences — in personality, experience, and identity — that sustain and fuel their apparent incompatibilities, rather than ignore the feud and the negative emotions associated with it. Enable them to share their experience while staying on their side of the net.
- You DO but don’t realize — collectively held unconscious behaviors, such as instinctively developed defensive routines to cope with anxiety. Beginning the fix: Warped interaction patterns may be readily discernible to outsiders. A trusted adviser or an external facilitator can be invited to observe the team and give feedback on their communication habits through humble inquiry.
Toegel and Barsoux recommend tackling the “SAY but don’t mean” undiscussables first, as the gap is between two elements that are visible to all team members — the things we say and the things we do. And leaving the “Do but don’t realize” undiscussables for last, as they require outside intervention that will predicate on enough internal goodwill being built by tackling the other undiscussables first.
Lastly, Toegel and Barsoux offer a lightweight diagnostic tool, to help identify what type of undiscussables may be present in a certain team, based on the most common symptoms and team patterns: