March 26, 2016
A Skill for Wicked Problems:
In 1935 singer and comedian Jimmy Durante starred in the Billy Rose Broadway musical Jumbo. In one scene, Durante crosses the stage leading a huge elephant. ”What are you doing with that elephant,” asks a policeman. Durante’s answer, “What elephant?” always brought down the house.
An Elephant in the Room
When the consultants delivered their diagnosis about the effectiveness of the executive team, no one was surprised. Their first conclusion was an observation that everyone already knew: “The most important problem in the senior team is a reluctance to express openly what the members are thinking, especially if they believe that their ideas or suggestions are controversial.” Unfortunately, ”everyone” who knew this didn’t include John, the CEO and team leader.
John began the next team meeting by saying, ”I have read the consultants’ report,” he said, “and I have a hard time believing that what they say is true. I can’t imagine that here, in this team, there are people who are holding back. So we are going to begin this meeting by going around and asking that each one of you say exactly what you are thinking.” He turned to Mary, sitting on his left. ”Mary, you begin.”
The next hour was full of what Chris Argysis has called “Fancy Footwork.” Each person worked hard to give the appearance of saying something important (” What I think is that we have worked hard to face up to our problems, and we have made good progress. We just need to keep going.”), but actually danced around saying anything important. They all knew it was too risky to say what they really thought.
Finally, it’s your turn. Surprising everyone, even yourself, you rise to your feet, turn to look at your boss. and say in a clear and confident voice: ”John, the consultants are right. I’ll speak for myself, but I know that everyone else in this room feels the same way. There is an elephant in this room and all of us know it except you. Our problem is that we are afraid to talk about it. I don’t say what I think because it’s too dangerous. None of us do. Why? Because I don’t trust you to hear me out and treat me fairly. After all, everyone in this room saw what happened to Charles when he spoke up and disagreed with you. The real problem here is not that we are not able to speak up and express ourselves, it is that we are fearful that there will be negative consequences. And John, these consequences come from you. You are the real source of this problem.”
Actually, you do nothing of the kind: You do not stand, you do not speak to your boss, and just like everyone else you do not say what you think. The elephant in the room is big and powerful and very much in charge.
Rather, when it’s your turn, you remain seated and say the innocuous, safe things that echo everyone else: ”Sure we’ve got problems. Everyone knows that. But speaking up and saying what we think is not one of them. I have no idea where the consultants got that idea.” John nods at you and looks around the room, a broad smile on his face.
There is no actual elephant of course. The “elephant” stands for issues, situations, or events that everyone knows about but not is willing to discuss.
Elephants-in-Rooms have another name: They are the Undiscussables.
In all relationships and situations there are difficult issues and problems that with effort and patience can be openly discussed and, as a result, are often resolved. And then there are those that can never be resolved because it is unacceptable, even forbidden, to name them, let alone discuss them. These are issues, situations, events, that everyone knows are off-limits and taboo. They are not to be acknowledged, named or discussed. These are the undiscussables. The fact that they exist and not discussed compounds their toxicity since those who suffer their consequences are painfully aware that since they cannot be discussed, nothing will be done about them.
And they are found everywhere: in families, in relationships, in teams and groups, in organizations, in societies, and even in individuals’ private lives. Wherever they are found, they contribute to making things worse.
Here are some examples:
Hume Cronyn’s Happy Family
Hume Cronyn, the renowned actor, grew up during the early years of the last century in a wealthy, upper class, Canadian family. His father suffered from a chronic disease that caused him to suffer occasional seizures. These seizures, when they occurred in public, were never acknowledged or discussed; they were assiduously ignored. In his autobiography Cronyn writes of the time when they were having dinner and his father suffered a seizure and fell face-down into his food. ”We all had to keep our places while they butler came over and righted my father, wiped him off carefully and served him a fresh plate. After a while,” Cronyn writes,” he regained consciousness. He looked around, bewildered…as we resumed the conversation exactly where it had broken off.” His father’s seizures were undiscussable, and family members had to pretend that they had never happened.
The Dance Critic
In December, 1994, dance critic Arlene Croce published an article in The New Yorker titled “Discussing the Undiscussable.” The focus of her article was to explain why she was not going to write a review of the dance performance, “Still/Here,” created by dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. “In this piece,” writes Croce, “…Jones presents people who are terminally ill and talk about it.” When Croce wrote her article she had not seen the performance and had no plans to see it. A dance piece featuring people who were terminally ill and who talked about their experience of dying while other people were dancing out the meaning of their words was more than she could bear ”I don’t deny that ‘Still/Here’ may be of value…But my approach has been cut off. By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable – the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs….For me,” Croce concluded “Jones is undiscussable because he has taken sanctuary among the unwell.”
The Nun with a Glass Eye
A number of years ago I spent several days at a Catholic High School in San Antonio, Texas, helping the teachers and administers – nuns and brothers – increase their collaboration and communication skills. During the time I spent with them, I was puzzled by the behavior of one of the nuns. Whenever she spoke to me, or to anyone else, she would arrange to have her right hand covering her right eye. She would do this by making what seemed to be casual, even random movements of her hand in the vicinity of her eye. It was as if she were telling us that having her hand in front of her eye meant nothing and so we shouldn’t notice.
Curious, I asked the Mother Superior about it. ”Oh,” she said,” that’s Sister Mary Catherine. She has a glass eye and she is ashamed of it. She has spent the last eight years pretending that her eye is not made of glass, and because we love her, we have all joined in. We never discuss the fact that Sister Mary Catherine has a glass eye, and we never let on that we all know.
“Eight years seems to be a long time to keep up the pretense,” I observed. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to talk about it with her?”
“Oh, we couldn’t do that, “she answered. ”She would be devastated.”
“Or she might be relieved,” I countered.
We discussed the”glass-eye” problem for twenty minutes, and eventually the Mother Superior agreed that it was time for everyone to discuss what up to that point has been undiscussable.
Later that afternoon, in a group session designed to identify issues and topics that people were avoiding but needed to talk about – the undiscussables- the Mother Superior turned to Sister Mary Catherine and said with great tenderness, “Sister Mary Catherine, please do not be offended, but I want you to know that we all know that you have a glass eye. Be assured that it makes no difference at all. We love you the way you are.”
What happened next can only be described as a huge collective sigh of relief, followed by crying, laughing and hugging. At last, Sister Mary Catherine was able to talk openly about her struggle to hide something that everyone knew about, and she was able to do it without any attempt to cover her now-famous glass eye. Everyone acknowledged how much emotional energy had been wasted is trying to “play the game.”
The CEO’s Helicopter
During a time when I was consulting with a large company in Mexico, the CEO, facing a precarious economic climate, announced a major cost-cutting program. The work force was to be cut by 15%, travel budgets were to be slashed, the R & D program was put on hold, and for the next two years, there would be no raises.
As I interviewed key employees about the effects of this drastic attempt to cut costs, anger and frustration was rampant. It was not, however, directed so much at the cost-saving program itself – it was clear that something needed to be done – but to the fact that the CEO continued to arrive each morning as was his custom in his helicopter. People could not understand, and some could not accept, that he continued to arrive by helicopter even though he lived only 20 minutes away by car, and had a limo and driver available. ”Carlos should be setting the example of saving money instead of arriving each morning in his helicopter,” said Francisco, the VP of Operations, “It would send a powerful example.”
“Shall we bring it up in the next meeting?” I asked.
“No, no, no, we can’t do that. What Carlos spends can never be mentioned, and to suggest he cut some of his own expenses is forbidden.”
“You mean it’s undiscussable?” I asked.
“Exactly,” said Francicso. It’s muy, muy undiscussable!”
And he was right. It was never discussed.
The Vision and Values Statement
In every office and meeting room at the New York branch of a large, multinational bank, hangs a plaque upon which two statements appear. They are titled “Our Vision,” and “Our Values.” When I first arrived at the bank as a consultant I studied them and found them to be quite profound. Later, I asked someone about them: ”Do people ever talk about the Vision and Values statements that I see hanging on the wall everywhere? ” What I got in return was a blank look, a sophisticated version of “Huh?”
“What are you talking about?” my contact asked
“In every office that I have been in, I see a plaque listing the bank’s Vision and Values. Does any ever refer to them?”
He thought for a moment. ”Nah,” he said, “they’re just for show.”
“Then why does the bank have them?”
“You know, I’ve never thought about it. What I do know is that they are the pet project of the Chairman of the Board of Directors. Ten or twelve years ago he brought in a consultant and we all went through an exercise to come up with a vision statement and a list of our values. And what we produced is right there on everybody’s wall.”
During the next week, I asked eight or nine people about them, and the answer was the same. No one could tell me without looking at what was on the plaque that hung in their office; no one could remember a time when they were even mentioned.
Later, while meeting with the CEO, I asked about the plaques and suggested that the Chairman of the Board ought to know that no one seems to be paying any attention to them. Perhaps something ought to be done, I suggested.
“Oh no,” he said. ”We can’t say anything about them. The Chairman believes that they are the foundation of our corporate culture and they have made an enormous difference is the success of the bank.”
“You mean that the fact that no one can tell me what they are, and no one thinks that they are important is undiscussable,” I said.
“Yes,” he responded, “that’s it. They’re undiscussable.”
Harvard Business School’s Intractable Problem
In 2013, Jodi Kantor published a story in The New York Times in which she identified what she claimed that “The country’s premier business school was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem.”
The problem was a a gender inequality problem: ”Year after year,” wrote Kantor, “women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left.”
For the women students, there was confusion. They were likely to be sized up on how they looked rather than what they knew. Being too ambitious risked being punished, being too passive resulted in being ignored. ”I had no idea who, as a single woman, I was meant to be on campus,” said Neda Navab, the daughter of Iranian immigrants. She wondered whether her priorities supposed to be “purely professional, were they academic, [or]were they to start dating someone?”
For the women junior faculty members, there was fear: ”As a female faculty member, you are in an incredibly hostile teaching environment, and they do nothing to protect you,” said one woman who left without tenure. A current teacher told Kantor that she was so afraid of a “wardrobe malfunction” that “she wore only custom suits in class, her tops invisibly secured to her skin with double-sided tape.” The comparison of the women teachers with men did nothing to bolster their confidence: ”The female profs I had were clearly weaker than the male ones,” said Halle Tecco, a 2011 graduate. ”They weren’t able to really run the classroom the way the male ones could.”
Making matters worse, the gender issues were undiscussable: ”You weren’t supposed to talk about it in open company,” said Kathleen L. Mcginn, a professor who supervised a study that showed a grade gap between men and women students. ”It was a dirty secret that wasn’t discussed.”
It Gets Worse: Making Undiscussables Undiscussable.
While the presence of undiscussables in families, relationships and organizations is itself a wicked problem, it is also a contributing factor to many if not most of the other wicked problems -after all, if something cannot be discussed then there is no way to work on it. Yet there is something that is even more destructive to morale, satisfaction and productivity than the presence of undiscussable issues and situations: When the existence of undiscussable problems becomes itself undiscussable. In Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, author Chris Argysis insists that the key causal factor for failure in relationships and organizations is when the critical problems that need to be surfaced and discussed ”were undiscussable, and their undiscussability was undiscussable.”
The presence of undiscussables is a serious but not an uncommon or an insurmountable problem. Addressed in skillful and careful ways, undiscussable problems can be discussed! But when the existence of these undiscussable issues, situations and problems becomes itself undiscussable, then all hope for improvement disappears. When important problems in relationships and organizations have the potential to be destructive in people’s lives and cannot be discussed, and the fact that they cannot be discussed itself cannot be discussed, then the the relationships and the organizations are in very serious trouble. If it is forbidden to even hint that “there could be an elephant in this room ,” then the elephant is going to be around for a long time, doing what elephants do when they find themselves in territory where they do not belong.
For the CEO in Mexico, the undiscussable issue of his profligacy in the midst of a campaign to cut costs everywhere else was clearly undiscussable: it could not even be hinted, at let alone discussed, and everyone knew it. When each morning the helicopter skimmed in over the company offices, a thousand people ground their teeth and muttered obscene words under their breaths.
When difficult situations and issues in relationships and organizations are avoided, there is usually a good reason. People believe that to talk about them could be rude, or impolite, risky, or even dangerous. And so, over time, such issues become undiscussable. Soon unwritten rules emerge: ”Everybody knows that it not acceptable to say anything about the way Brad abuses the staff,” and so even though it makes people upset, they pretend that it doesn’t happen. Without a serious effort, one that is carefully prepared and skillfully managed, undiscussables cannot be moved from the Undiscussable Category to the table where, in the light of day, they can be discussed, examined, and decisions about what do with them can be made.
In the next essay I will review useful steps to take and potential risks to avoid in the process of discussing undiscussables.