The topic of taboos in the workplace came up during the Thursday, April 9th #aopm discussion, more specifically, how to prepare new product managers for dealing with taboos in the workplace. Here are my thoughts:
Typically, taboos are the result of a value or belief system, and they are usually a sign of a broader cultural issue that goes beyond the taboos themselves. If you understand the value or belief system that is behind the taboo, you understand why the taboo exists and, more importantly, the broader cultural context. For example, in France, it is considered a taboo in some circles to discuss the Algerian war. If you explored this further, you would discover that the war between France and Algeria was a long and frustrating war and there continues to be a lot of resentment among citizens on both sides of the conflict. If you explored this even further, you would find that the French have a history of bloody wars on their own soil (WWI,WWII) and several painful wars over colonial possessions (Algeria, Vietnam). So, this would raise the question as to whether the taboo is about the Algerian war, war in general, or perhaps about something even bigger. At any rate, I am not going to debate French belief systems but I did want to show how a taboo can be an indication of something much broader that should be examined and understood if you really want to understand the culture.
To help prepare the new product manager for taboos, I would consider the following: To acquaint the product manager with a list of known taboos would be a good start; however, it would provide a tactical approach to the problem. To help the product manager understand the belief system or systems that is behind the taboos would go much further and provide a strategic approach to the problem. The advantage of the strategic approach is that it would help the product manager anticipate unknown taboos and other cultural challenges. Moreover, a strategic approach would be particularly important if the company culture is complex, conflicted, or highly dynamic.
In my next topic, I will discuss specific techniques that would help communicate this information.