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How to address the undiscussables on your team

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  • Quick consensus, lack of debate, and uneven participation are indicators of undiscussables.
  • Foster a culture of psychological safety to encourage open dialogue.
  • Tackle issues as they arise to prevent them from escalating.

In every team, there are topics that seem too sensitive, awkward, or controversial to bring up. These are the undiscussables—issues that everyone knows exist but no one wants to address. However, avoiding these conversations can lead to a toxic work environment, decreased productivity, and a lack of trust among team members. This article will explore strategies to effectively discuss the undiscussables on your team, fostering a culture of openness and psychological safety.

Identifying the Undiscussables

Before you can address undiscussables, you need to recognize them. Common signs include:

Quick Consensus: Meetings where everyone agrees too quickly may indicate that people are holding back their true opinions.

Lack of Debate: A lack of productive debate can signal that team members are avoiding conflict by not voicing their concerns.

Uneven Participation: If only a few people are contributing to discussions, it might mean that others feel unsafe or uncomfortable speaking up.

The Importance of Addressing Undiscussables

Ignoring undiscussables can have severe consequences. As highlighted in the Theranos case, when employees feel they cannot voice their concerns, it can lead to disastrous outcomes. Aaron Moore's sarcastic ad about the company's faulty device was a desperate attempt to raise a taboo subject, which was ultimately ignored by leadership. This example underscores the importance of creating an environment where team members feel safe to discuss difficult topics.

Strategies for Discussing Undiscussables

1. Create a Safe Environment

Building psychological safety is crucial. According to an article from Harvard Business Review, fostering a culture of psychological safety involves encouraging openness, learning from mistakes, and promoting inclusivity. When team members feel safe, they are more likely to bring up sensitive issues.

2. Encourage Open Communication

Promote a culture where open communication is valued. Leaders should model this behavior by being transparent about their own challenges and inviting feedback. Use language that is affirming and non-judgmental to make others feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.

3. Use Structured Methods

Structured methods like anonymous surveys or suggestion boxes can help surface undiscussables. These tools allow team members to voice their concerns without fear of retribution.

4. Facilitate Regular Check-ins

Regular one-on-one meetings and team check-ins can provide opportunities for team members to discuss issues in a more private and less intimidating setting. These meetings should be framed as a safe space for honest dialogue.

5. Address Issues Promptly

Avoiding difficult conversations only allows issues to fester. Address concerns as they arise to prevent them from escalating. As noted by WellRight, procrastination in dealing with tough conversations can lead to anxiety and resentment.

Case Study: The Theranos Example

The Theranos case is a stark reminder of what can happen when undiscussables are ignored. Elizabeth Holmes' refusal to acknowledge the obvious concerns about the company's product led to a culture of silence and fear. When Aaron Moore's prank ad highlighted the device's flaws, it was met with an investigation rather than an open discussion. This response further silenced employees and led to Moore's resignation.

Discussing the undiscussables is not easy, but it is essential for a healthy and productive team environment. By creating a culture of psychological safety, encouraging open communication, and addressing issues promptly, leaders can help their teams navigate these difficult conversations. Remember, the goal is not to avoid conflict but to manage it constructively, fostering a more transparent and collaborative workplace.

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