Of all the things leaders do, talking is among the most visible and certainly among the most influential. Think about it. You don’t add your greatest value by virtue of your skill in manipulating project management software or flipping switches or turning valves. You add your greatest value by interacting with other human beings, and you do that primarily by talking.

It’s amazing how many books have been written on the subject of talking. While most of them contribute to the discussion, their essence can be summed up simply: We are most effective when we talk so other people will listen and when we listen so other people will talk.

Because it requires honesty and clarity, true dialogue can be uncomfortable. And because people like to avoid discomfort, it’s tempting to allow some topics to remain unaddressed—sort of like leaving a splinter in your finger even though logic tells you the temporary pain of digging it out is not nearly as bad as the likely infection from leaving it in.

Most of us have been in situations where there’s a relevant issue that nobody seems willing to talk about. We might even say to ourselves, “There’s an elephant in this room, and I sure wish someone else would tame that animal.” Well, to tame an elephant—an “undiscussable”—you must first acknowledge its existence.

A natural consequence of undiscussables in a culture is that fresh viewpoints get deflected, or even smothered. That’s contrary to the whole purpose of dialogue, and dangerous for any organization interested in vitality and achievement.

Our recent (as well as remote) history is replete with examples of intolerance for facts that disturb the status quo.

  • At NASA, insulation foam falling off fuel tanks and hitting space shuttles became an undiscussable.
  • For Detroit automakers, the marketplace surge of Japanese cars was an undiscussable.
  • At IBM, Apple was an undiscussable.
  • At American Airlines, cross-state rival Southwest Airlines was an undiscussable.
  • At Kodak, digital photography was an undiscussable.
  • In the music industry, MP3 file-sharing was an undiscussable.
  • Among Michael Jackson’s entourage of hangers-on, the pop star’s drug dependence was an undiscussable.

You can make your own list. Some organizations harbor veritable herds of unnamed, untamed elephants.

After completing a culture assessment for a major corporation I was doing my “What? So what? and Now what?” presentation to the senior management team. That’s where I describe the results, point out the implications of the findings, and make recommendations for change. One of the findings was that the CEO had a shoot-the-messenger reputation that was stifling open dialogue on key operational issues.

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