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New MIT Sloan Management Review Research Article Reveals an Overlooked Root Cause of Toxic Culture and Poor Team Performance: 'Undiscussables'

Subjects consciously or unwittingly deemed "out of bounds" by an organization come in four varieties and can make it almost impossible for teams to function, say researchers Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Sept. 10, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- In a new article, "It's Time to Tackle Your Team's Undiscussables," released today by MIT Sloan Management Review (MIT SMR), IMD business school researchers Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux offer a fresh diagnosis of toxic culture and poor team performance. They identify four varieties of "Undiscussables"— off-limits subjects in an organization that cripple a team's ability to function — and offer research-backed solutions for creating open, honest communication, strengthening relationships, and improving team performance.

Ginka Toegel

"Undiscussables exist because they help people avoid short-term conflicts, threats, and embarrassment," the authors write. "But they also short-circuit the inquiries and challenges essential to both improving performance and promoting team learning. Without open, honest discussion, a team cannot learn from its mistakes or correct course. Left unmanaged, undiscussables contaminate the team, choking its problem-solving abilities and capacity to learn and adapt to change."

Treating undiscussables is more critical than ever as increasingly virtual and globally distributed teams find it harder to pick up signals of discomfort and anticipate misunderstandings. With fewer opportunities to raise undiscussables face-to-face, it becomes even more important to identify and air concerns before they escalate and team and organizational performance begin to suffer.

Toegel and Barsoux's insight on undiscussables is backed by deep research in team dynamics, consulting work with senior management teams, and collaboration with participants in executive education programs at IMD business school over the past 10 years. They have also studied group dynamics in elite sports teams, orchestras, medical teams, and a hostage negotiation team.

They draw on this research and experience to offer diagnostic questions to uncover whether your team has an "undiscussables" problem. These questions include:

  • Does the team agree publicly during meetings but disagree (and vent) privately?
  • Does the team often use sarcasm, silence, or nonverbal gestures to signal disagreement?
  • Are team meetings too undemanding and unrealistically upbeat?
  • Does the team always seem to adopt similar perspectives on problems?
  • Are people reluctant to comment on issues outside their direct responsibilities?
  • Does the team spin its wheels on minor issues?
  • Do important items often get postponed or fall between the cracks?

The authors also identify four varieties of undiscussables and offer specific steps toward finding a solution:

  • You THINK but dare not say. Views are left unspoken mostly when people fear the consequences of speaking. The main driver of this fear is often team leaders with an emotional, erratic management style and a reputation for responding harshly when people disagree with them. The Fix: Leaders can explicitly acknowledge they have created a climate of fear or uncertainty, invite discussion about sensitive issues, draw out concerns, promise immunity to those who share dissenting views, and lighten the weight of their authority in the room. They can also engage in maintenance behaviors, including saying "we" rather than "I," encouraging team members to voice their concerns, and acknowledging their contributions.
  • You SAY but don't mean. These undiscussables reflect discrepancies between what the team says it believes or finds important and how it behaves. The Fix: Team leaders must expose the hypocrisy of saying but not meaning, collect anonymous examples of empty proclamations, and challenge the overprotective mindset that inhibits the airing of criticism. Team leaders must ensure that the organization's stated goal is the real goal and stress a collective responsibility to keep one another honest, listen to alternative viewpoints, and break down the unproductive and misconceived connection between criticism and disloyalty.
  • You FEEL but can't name. This type of undiscussable is rooted in negative feelings — such as annoyance, mistrust, and frustration — that are difficult for team members to label or express constructively. The Fix: The team leader's role is to ensure that individuals feel equally welcome and accepted within the team and promote diversity as a source of insight, not friction. A neutral coach can help team members open up by asking essential follow-on questions and probing for clarification when needed. This process can be augmented with a formal assessment tool that captures individual team members' personality profiles and a common framework that helps people understand the roots of their colleagues' behaviors.
  • You DO but don't realize. The deepest undiscussables — and the most difficult to uncover — are collectively held unconscious behaviors. Members of the team may be aware of isolated problems in their dynamic, but they cannot connect the dots and infer root causes, so they jump to the wrong conclusions about what is behind team inefficiencies and poor performance. The Fix: The team leader can invite a trusted adviser from another part of the organization or an external facilitator to observe the team and give feedback on communication habits, including body language, who talks and how often, who people look at when they talk, who interrupts whom, who or what is blamed when things go wrong, what is not spoken about, who stays silent, and whose comments are ignored.

Toegel and Barsoux encourage leaders to be open-minded and optimistic about utilizing this framework to identify the dominant undiscussables in their businesses and kick-start the necessary conversations to bring them to light.

"Team leaders tend to overestimate the risks of raising undiscussables," they write. "They assume incorrectly that talking about negative subjects will sap team energy, reveal issues they cannot resolve, and expose them to blame for the part they played in creating the problems the group faces. In reality, we've found that discussing undiscussables brings relief, boosts energy, and bolsters team goodwill."

To read the full article, please visit: MIT SMR.

About the authors:
Ginka Toegel is a professor of organizational behavior and leadership at IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. Jean-Louis Barsoux is a term research professor at IMD business school.

About MIT Sloan Management Review
A media company based at the MIT Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan Management Review's mission is to lead the conversation among research scholars, business executives, and other thought leaders about advances in management practice, especially those shaped by technology, that are transforming how people lead and innovate. MIT Sloan Management Review captures for thoughtful managers the creativity, excitement, and opportunity generated by rapid organizational, technological, and societal change.

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Jean-Louis Barsoux
Cision

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