Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Is there mold growing in your organization?

My son Nathaniel’s sixth grade science project
was titled – Where mold grows best.

To find out, Nathaniel, placed slices of bread around the house. He misted some of the slices (keeping them moist). Others he let dry out. The experiment was slated to last ten days. Within five we had the answer.

It came in the form of an unpleasant odor wafting out of his closet. Mold, it turns out, grows best in damp, dark environments.
Who knew? ;)

Where’s the mold in your organization?
I’m not talking about physical mold. That can be eradicated with disinfectant and elbow grease.

There is much more insidious form of mold that isn’t physical. It’s cultural. It infects how people communicate, think, and make decisions.

This mold stifles creativity. Erodes trust. And camouflages the real issues. This mold is called the undiscussables.

What are undiscussables?
In every organization and every team – there are “sensitive” or “difficult” subjects that everyone avoids. I’m talking work-related topics (not personal issues like a team member’s new hair color).

These are real issues that every one knows about - but avoids bringing up.

Why don’t we bring up these real issues?
It’s goes back to some of fundamental social wiring. In every social group there are certain topics that become off limits. Think taboos. Topics that are verboten.

People avoid these difficult conversations. And cultures develop ways of not facing uncomfortable truths.

What are some of the undiscussables?
I can’t tell you (. . . just kidding).

Many undiscussables have to do with power -
Like when a boss says she/he wants to “hear others ideas and opinions” – but they’ve already made up their minds and everybody knows it.

But, nobody says so. And everyone goes through the motions of having an “open dialogue”.

Or when team members don’t keep their agreements – but never bring it up to each other.

Other undiscussables are more technical – and business specific – unique to your organization. But a clue to identifying the undiscussables in your organization is to look for a gap between what people say and what they do.

Like talking about “Quality #1!” While pushing for more production – and compromising quality standards. Or talking about “teamwork”. While making unilateral decisions and acting without consulting teammates.

If talking directly about this gap with the people who are involved feels risky – then you’ve likely found an undiscussable.

What happens when undiscussables aren’t addressed?
Just because the difficult issue gets put away – like a slice of moist bread in a dark closet - doesn’t mean it stops “growing”.

Issues that can’t be discussed in the open – still get talked about. After the official meeting. In the halls. At the “water cooler”. In emails.

The undiscussable issue grows like mold.
Even when you’re in a meeting – the odor of the undiscussable issue wafts through the room. People smell it. And hold their breath – hoping it will go away.

The longer the undiscussable is ignored – the moldier it becomes.
The more the culture defends itself from difficult conversations – the more dysfunctional it becomes. Think of the Challenger disaster. Or Enron.

These examples are extreme in scope. But the patterns of denial and defensiveness are common (to some degree) in all cultures.

What can you do about undiscussables?
Recognize that while the truth may set you (and others) free.
First it will make you (and others) uncomfortable.

So, give you (and others) a lot of acceptance and forgiveness as you bring the undiscussable issue into the light (of awareness).

Don’t try to resolve the issue in a single conversation.
Take your time. It is more important to explore the ideas, assumptions, values, and beliefs that have sustained the undiscussable – than to figure out how to fix it.

Focus more on examining the undiscussable – develop deep understanding before trying to solve it.

Recognize that when it comes to undiscussables everyone’s had a hand in keeping the bread in the closet.
But, it only takes one person to open the door and start to let in the light.

But, isn’t it risky?
Truthfully it can be.
But, most of the risks can be minimized by how you raise the issue.
Here’s how:

Don’t be self-righteous
Be vulnerable. Admit your part – and how you’ve avoided the issue.

Don’t blame
Be curious. Listen to understand how others’ have struggled with the undiscussable.

Reflect on the costs of not raising the issue
What will it cost you personally to not bring it up? In terms of your integrity? Your sense of purpose? Your fulfillment at work?

Remember where mold goes best
You don’t need to repeat my son’s science experiment in your organization. We all know that mold (and undiscussables) grow best in the dark. And that leadership starts with bringing the real issues to light.

Guest writer Eric Klein is the founder of Dharma Consulting and architect of the You Are the Leader You've Been Waiting for program.


  1. This is a great post on an issue I see far too often - a lack of candor and an inability to hold difficult conversations.

    Thanks for the advice on getting rid of this Possibility destroying mold!

    I have selected this post as one of my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog posts of the week which can be found here:

  2. Chris

    Thanks for sharing this article. If you want more ways to keep the "mold" at bay - see my site:

    Let's keep the conversation going.

    Eric Klein