By Chally Kacelnik
Have you ever come across an organisational taboo? Something you just can’t say because it jars too much with something else people tend to say and feel about the organisation?
Some years ago, I was presenting the results of a current state analysis to a team. It included some anonymised quotes that had arisen from consultation with members of that team to the effect that they felt personally stretched and disempowered, and that the team lacked cohesion. One person repeatedly responded that she just could not believe that anyone in the team had said that. I had to point out that several people in the same room had in fact had to have said that. Of course, their colleague had just made it that much harder for them to be ever able to say it again (even anonymously).
I spoke recently about Getting Genuine Feedback in a Low Trust Workplace, and how mechanisms for anonymity are essential for doing that. In the organisation about which I was speaking in that post, everyone was very aware and open about it being a low trust environment (which openness helped the organisation to become a higher trust one over time). But when everyone’s telling you that there’s a lot of trust and we all get along great in a healthy environment, it is extremely hard to say anything that goes against that narrative. Often, in that setting, people are so invested in the idea that everything is great that their response is hostile to any evidence (and person) getting in the way of their view. This of course is evidence that the idea is wrong: a genuinely positive environment is able to accommodate different perspectives and work to make itself better.
What’s more important, do you think? Maintaining the surface perception that things are going well, or having things actually go well?
The pressure to not say anything honest and negative might be really explicit and threatening, or it might be implicit. When you want to express something in order to improve your workplace and you know you’ll be ostracised for doing so, that’s a problem. There needs to be room for people to express their thinking without being shut down – especially when they’re saying something that makes others, perhaps particularly people in positions of authority, feel defensive and uncomfortable. This room shouldn’t be an excuse for discriminatory statements or cruelty with impunity in the guise of “just being honest” – it should be an opportunity for people to speak respectfully and have their perspectives be heard.
A positive organisational culture has room for people to respectfully disagree. A fullness of perspectives will spark better ideas and better work. If you’re only hearing one narrative about your organisation (especially if everyone’s using the exact same positive language), it’s time to take another look at why.