Shhhhhh! You Can't Say That!

Facing Difficult Problems Openly
Treating symptoms instead of the root cause of symptoms is a mistake that dates back millennia (just ask Socrates). The current-day workplace is no different. In Johanna Rothman's column, we get a glimpse at what happens when a company doesn't value its people.

I recently had lunch with my colleague, Glenn. Before I even sat down, he said, "JR, you're not going to believe what happened at work this morning. People have been leaving our place in droves, and they're sending farewell mail to the "all-engineering" group mailing list. That's not so bad, but some people are replying by way of the entire list to wish an exiting team member well and to tell him that they wish they could join in his new opportunity.

"Our CEO is furious about this. He doesn't like seeing the going-away notes, but he really hates seeing the I-wish-I-were-going-too notes. In this morning's acrimonious meeting, it was decided that only managers should be allowed to post to the "all" lists. I hate this solution, but it's the best one we could come up with.

Of course, I agreed that this solution was ill-conceived. After all, Glenn's company had created the "all" lists to communicate easily with the different groups. Making them management-only considerably reduces their value.

But here was the real crux of my concern. Why did Glenn's management and peers choose to ignore the real problem? When I asked Glenn, he was initially confused and asked, "What do you mean, the real problem?"

The real problem in Glenn's company was that the management, especially the CEO, wasn't speaking about or addressing the attrition problem.

Many organizations have things they can't or won't talk about. But when a management team can't talk about a problem (like attrition), any one of the consequences of that problem (here, inappropriate email) creates different and bigger problems for the other people (here, director-level managers). These secondary problems can continue to branch out from the core "unspeakable" issue. And even a passable solution to a "side effect" problem seldom resolves the core issue.

In this case, questionable use of the "all" lists is an example of letting the original attrition problem spawn other problems: misuse of the mailing lists, getting the wrong people involved in fixing the wrong problem, and exacerbating low morale by imposing additional restrictions on the staff.

Another side effect of "we can't talk about that" is the feeling of being marginalized and insulted. Glenn's peers may have been thinking, "Not only is this a terrible place to work, but the best idea our management has is to blame us for talking about it. Everybody has problems, but our management won't face theirs and expects us to turn a blind eye, as well."

Yes, it's difficult to speak about some things. But, if you don't face a problem, you can't solve it. Glenn's CEO probably realizes that something about the company is not right, but he's not ready to discuss what that is. Until he does, the problem will continue to grow and spawn other dilemmas, becoming an increasingly powerful, undermining force.

When you come up against unspeakable problems, try to articulate what's at the core. Just saying it aloud loosens the problem's power over you. Imagine if Glenn's CEO could say, "We're having a problem with people leaving. Why do you think that is?" The other managers could then talk about the state of the company with the CEO. They might not be able to solve the problem quickly, but no one can solve problems they can't discuss.

Learn to speak the unspeakable, and regain your power over your problems.

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