Some issues seem so sensitive that colleagues won’t talk about them. Their silence can put a strain on collaboration. How can you get people talking about taboo topics?
From a social-psychological point of view, there is a good intention behind any taboo: It’s supposed to maintain the social order. A classic from the past is the taboo of having relationships before marriage. Unmarried couples were frowned upon, because a woman had to obtain economic security through marriage before she became a mother. Regarding this question, our present society is much more liberal. Women have emancipated. Sex education and knowledge about contraception have become part of school teaching. Societal progress has created better opportunities to shape one’s own biography, changing the norms on which the taboo of premarital relationships was formerly based.
In everyday life, however, we still encounter taboos quite frequently. On a minor scale, our personal environment also represents a social order that we want to keep stable. Working life is no exception: Certain issues are left unsaid because people prefer to avoid conflicts, they don’t want to offend their colleagues, or they try not to put a strain on their relationships with supervisors. Though it may be sensible not to make a fuss about every little problem, there’s a point where silence does become problematic. When do taboos affect motivation and undermine trust in leadership? Here are some examples:
Such underlying conflicts can be found virtually in every place where people work together. In daily business, however, it’s hard to find the time and the right setting to deal with them. Dedicated discussions, e.g., Q&As with leadership members, may only take place as part of crisis management. But it’s not only a lack of time that hinders an open discussion. When co-workers remain silent about annoying topics, this shows a lack of trust: Those who voice criticism fear that they will harm themselves. In order to bring up taboos that affect the team, people need a protected space. The following workshop format provides a very good framework for this:
Which topics affect cooperation and are not openly discussed? Everyone puts down their notes on cards, adding concrete examples. The workshop moderator collects the cards and copies the notes into neutral writing; the originals are destroyed. Therefore, it’s important that the workshop is led by an unbiased person. The cards are shuffled and evenly distributed. Each person reads the notes silently to him or herself – no comments are allowed. Afterwards, everyone passes their deck of cards to other colleagues. This process is repeated until all participants have read all the cards.
In teams of two, participants leave the room and go for a walk. On the way, each pair discusses which taboo topic is particularly relevant from their point of view – and how the team could start a conversation about it. Back in the workshop room, the participants form two groups in which they document their reflections.
Two new groups are formed. Based on the points worked out before, they decide, independently of each other, which behaviors they would like to start, continue or stop in the future (start-stop-continue method). Both groups present their results to each other.
This workshop can initiate a process – no more, no less. It’s a clear signal from management that an open discussion is possible, and that they are willing to tackle controversial issues. In the following step, things have to change. There is no standard procedure for this transformation, as the underlying issues can be very diverse: mindset or prejudices, knowledge or competencies, social behavior, decision-making or completely different issues. One thing is crucial: Management and employees must continue their dialog and invest the necessary time for it. Most likely, the conversations will become more controversial. And this would be a good sign that the silence is being overcome.
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