April 10, 2016
During the late 1960′s, at the height of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Baines Johnson found himself with a seemingly intractable problem. Having stated unequivocally that he would not be the first American president to lose a war, he seemed that he was to do just that. Everything that he tried had not stopped the relentless advance of the North Vietnamese offensive into South Vietnam. His great hope had been to begin withdrawing American troops from Vietnam, yet the only option that seemed open to him was to do the opposite, to keep increasing the number of American troops committed to the war believing that would finally turn the tide.
As Johnson faced one impossible situation after another, he would convene the National Security Council, present his latest proposal and ask for advice. According to Chester Cooper, a member of the NSC, these meetings would begin with Johnson introducing an important issue or problem and outlining his proposed solution. This would be followed by a ”bland and desultory” discussion. Johnson would then announce his decision, and poll everyone in the room – council members, their assistants, and members of the White House and NSC staffs – as to whether they were in agreement: ”Mr. Secretary, do you agree with the decision?” ”Yes, Mr. President.” ”Mr. X, do you agree?” ”I agree Mr. President.” And on and on the pattern would repeat itself.
“During the process,” reported Cooper, “I would frequently fall into a Walter Mitty-like fantasy: when my turn came I would rise to my feet slowly, look around the room and then directly at the President and say, very quietly and emphatically, ‘Mr. President, gentlemen, I most definitely do not agree.’ But I was removed from my trance when I heard the President’s voice saying, Mr. Cooper, do you agree?’ And out would come a ‘Yes, Mr. President, I agree.’”
According to John Stroessinger in Crusaders and Pragmatists, President Johnson “overwhelmed his advisors with the sheer force of his personality. They sensed what he wanted and gave it to him… Johnson did not have advisors to seek advice,” Stoessinger continued, ”but to elicit emotional support for his personal beliefs.”
Everyone understood what was expected of them. There was an elephant in the room, and everyone was clear about it: there would be no disagreeing with President Johnson. The fact that no one could disagree was undiscussable. And to compound the problem, the fact that disagreeing with Johnson was undiscussable was itself undiscussable.
During those troubled times, Johnson’s “advisors” were in a double bind. They were required to agree to something that for the most part they did not believe – that more and more soldiers were the answer. If they disagreed they would be punished. If they tried to explain that it was impossible to disagree, they would also be punished. And so they were not able to talk about the predicament in which they found themselves.
Would it have made a difference if Johnson’s advisors would have felt able to freely express their opinions? Clearly, it would depend upon Johnson’s willingness to consider their opinions, to place them on the table and to lead an open and honest discussion in reviewing them. But this didn’t happen. There are historian who have concluded that Johnson’s unwillingness to permit others to openly discuss his proposals, as well as his style, unnecessarily prolonged the inevitable defeat in Vietnam at a cost of thousands of additional lives.
And change could have started with a simple statement: “Mr. President, we are struggling with an issue that we are not able to talk about: We do not feel free to disagree with your proposals and decisions. Much of the time, our agreements are dishonest. It is time we begin to discuss what up to now has been undiscussable.” Even though Johnson desperately needed help during the last months of the war, the force of his personal style made it impossible for those who could have helped to offer the help he needed.
Undiscussables are Universal
Fewof us will face such a disastrous dilemma as did President Johnson. Yet sooner or later, we will all find ourselves is a somewhat similar situation: There are important things that we need to talk about or learn about, but because they are undiscussable, they are not brought to the surface where they can be examined and acted upon. Opening up undiscussable issues and situations, gaining a more accurate and complete understanding of the problems they represent, and then moving to make changes in the way people relate to each other, and the way work is done, are among the most important ways to improve the quality of key relationships and the productivity of teams and organizations. But as I have suggested, discussing undiscussable issues and situations requires careful planning and skillful execution. Otherwise, things can get worse, and may become irredeemable.
Most of the time when issues, events or situations move from the “We Can Talk About This” to “This is Something That We Need to Avoid,” there is the serious possibility of someone being embarrassed, humiliated or exposed. Most things are undiscussable because someone wants it that way. Pushing to bring them to the surface, unless it is done well, will inevitably create tension, resentment, and conflict. Easy issues are discussed easily. It is the gnarly, wicked issues that get pushed down into Undiscussable Land.
From Undiscussable to Discussable
How do the members of a relationship or team or leaders in organizations go about identifying the important undiscussable that exist in all social environments? Jeffery Pfeffer, in Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, repeats the approach I have proposed in these essays numerous times: ”To get from one place to another,” he writes, “you need to know as best as you can where you are, where you want to go, and, most important, the obstacles and barriers that you will likely encounter en route.” When it comes to undiscussable, the first question is “Where are we?” The second is “Where do we want to go?” The third is What are the obstacles that stand in our way?” and finally, “What should be done to remove the most important obstacles?”
Before exploring more in depth these action steps there is an important consideration to keep in mind: In all social environments not everything needs to be discussed! At times, it is better to leave some things unexplored and unexamined. If Knowledge is knowing what to say, and Skill is knowing how to say it, then Wisdom is knowing whether to say it or not. As William James said, “The art of being wise is to know what to overlook.” Some issues or situations are better overlooked; others should be brought to the surface.
I wish I had a simple recipe for telling the difference, but as I have said many times, when we are grappling with wicked problems, there are no recipes. Yet there are guidelines. Here are several:
- If the issue is primarily one’s own, and not shared by other people, then living with it may be the best option;
- If you have tried to live with the issue and found that to be impossible, then perhaps it needs to be discussed;
- If you sense that others share your concern and especially if you or others have spoken of it quietly among yourselves, then it is increasingly something that needs explicit attention;
- Issues to be brought to the surface should have the potential to become actionable. It makes no sense to bring to the surface issues or situations for which nothing can be done;
- And finally, issues or situations that are negatively affecting the quality of relationships and the productively of teams and organizations are important candidates for movement from undiscussable to discussable.
The Owner: Changing an undiscussable situation into one that can be discussed requires that someone be in charge of making it happen. If the “owner” is also the legitimate leader of a team or organization, then the possibilities of success are increased. This “owner” should be one who cares about improving things; who has the authority, power, or “intestinal fortitude” to make it happen; who has “money in the bank;” – a positive reputation – who is willing and able to manage what will surely be serious risks; and who is skillful at managing difficult, emerging situations. If the “owner” has limited experience with such situations, it may be wise to bring in a consultant to help with the process.
Other People: The people who know about, care about, and are affected by the undiscussed problem need to be part of the process but other people need not be involved. If it is part of a relationship, then the several parties all need to participate. If the situation is a team problem, then team members all need to be at the table. If the issue is an organizational one, then key members of the organization should form an action team to deal with it.
Introducing the Concept: Before beginning any serious work, the key people need to understand the concept of Undiscussable. Either the “owner” begins with a brief presentation on the topic (“Undiscussable Issues and Why they Are Important”) or assigns someone to research the topic and make the presentation. It should include the fact that undiscussables exist in all relationships and organizations, that they usually reduce satisfaction and productivity, that there are negative consequences of letting them remain unaddressed, and the potential positive outcomes of dealing with them openly.
Describing the Process: After the people involved understand the concept involved, the “owner” begins: ”I am convinced that there are undiscussable issues that are affecting the quality of our work. I believe that it is important that we deal with them. I am committed to doing this in a productive, positive and supportive way, etc. etc.” A “road map” is useful: ”Here is what I see happening: We need to figure out what are our most important undiscussables. We need to think about what we should do about them, and then we should get to work on making changes.”
Soft Start: Since the territory that is to be explored is unknown and could be potentially threatening, a “soft start” is helpful. I have learned that one way to begin is that once people have grasped the concept, invite them to write an anonymous list of undiscussables that concern them – two or three is a good number for starters – and hand these to the owner. He or she will then read them aloud while someone lists them on an easel or whiteboard.
Establish Priorities: An important next step is to review the list of issues and establish a priority list. I suggest that two criteria be used: Frequency and feasibility. Those issues that are mentioned frequently plus those that seem capable of change should be moved to the top of the list.
Be a Model: It is important for the owner or leader to set an example by modeling helpful behavior. ”I believe that the issue of unproductive meetings is one that we should begin with. It is one that I had on my list, and since there are five other mentions, it is clearly important. I will begin by describing what I think is our undiscussable issue about our team meetings…” By taking the initiative and beginning with an issue that he or she has included in the list, the leader can contribute to the creation of a helpful and safe environment that will support and encourage increasingly open and honest conversation.
Moving to Action: Following an open discussion characterized by non-defensive listening, and helpful clarification (“So, what I’m learning here is that what I thought was the problem with our team meetings wasn’t really important for the rest of you, but that these four issues are important…”) the owner (or the facilitator) helps the team move toward the creation of an action plan, one that begins with the formulation of an actionable problem.
It’s Always More Complicated
It is possible, of course, to make a list of steps to be followed in reaching any important goal. I just did it. It is important to emphasize, however, that such lists are always superficial, inadequate and incomplete. Its function here is not to provide a solution to the problem of working with undiscussable issues and situations, but to offer one version of how one might go about it. Doing it in real time, with real people, and real issues, is always much more complicated than making a list. Like any other important skill, once one has an idea about what to do, actually doing it is always a learning process. Including at the end of any work session an After Action Review (AAR) is an excellent idea. An AAR consists of two questions – “What did we do that helped us, that we should keep doing in the future?” and ”What didn’t help us and should change next time?” It is a safe assumption few partners in a relationship, or few teams or organizations are competent in managing the difficult dynamics of working with the wickedness of undiscussables and so an AAR is a vital step to take toward the continuous improvement of attitudes and skills.
“Hic Sunt Dracones”
Finally, those undiscussable issues that are themselves undiscussable are not only the most pernicious, but also the most dangerous to address. When the existence of undiscussable issues itself becomes undiscussable, it is safe to assume that someone is vitally interested in covering something up. Bringing them to the surface may never be a good idea, at least at first. Making such an effort is not for the unprepared nor the fainthearted, but requires a combination of a climate of trust and an unusual group of highly skilled people, two conditions that rarely come together at the same time and in the same place. And even then, attempting to get to the bottom of the pit where undiscussable issues that cannot be discussed are consigned may open a proverbial Pandora’s Box, the consequences of which may leave a path of unwanted and unfortunate destruction in its wake.
When the medieval mapmakers came to the end of their known world, some would place on the margin of their maps the Latin phrase “Hic Sunt Dracones:” Here be dragons! When struggling with wicked problems we will find ourselves in a similar predicament: we will come to the end of our known world; what lies beyond is always uncharted territory. When it comes to surfacing undiscussable issues and situations, and especially when the issue of undiscussablity is itself undiscussable, we need to explore these unknown territories with great care: “Hic Sunt Dracones!”