Identifying and Addressing ‘Undiscussables’ and ‘Breaking Points’ in Executive Teams

Identifying and Addressing ‘Undiscussables’ and ‘Breaking Points’ in Executive Teams

In a senior executive team, there may be “undiscussables” and “breaking points.”

“Undiscussables” refer to significant issues within the team that everyone avoids discussing until unavoidable and severe consequences occur. It’s often referred to as the “elephant in the room.” For example, a company might have been making money opportunistically without a clear strategy, and no one discusses it until the company faces financial difficulties.

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“Breaking points” describe the strained relationships between two executives in the team. They may maintain a polite facade but secretly hold contempt for each other, refusing to cooperate unless absolutely necessary, leading to intense conflicts when collaboration becomes unavoidable. Both sides vie for support and may engage in negative discussions about each other behind closed doors. These relationships are considered “breaking points.”

In reality, “undiscussables” can also be “breaking points,” especially between a senior executive and the CEO. Such breaking points hinder constructive discussions between the executive team and the CEO.

When a senior executive team has several “undiscussables” and “breaking points,” it resembles a dysfunctional group rather than an effective team. The consequences can be severe, as collaboration and decision-making suffer.

However, it’s not uncommon for senior executive teams to have “undiscussables” and “breaking points.” These issues often stem from significant deficiencies in the cognitive abilities, leadership skills, and values of the CEO. In China, traditional hierarchical respect for authority can exacerbate such problems.

Breaking points, on the other hand, can arise from interpersonal issues and deficiencies in leadership skills and values among the individuals involved. Sometimes, the CEO may unintentionally create these breaking points.

Do you have any “undiscussable topics” or “breaking points” within your executive team?

What should be done if there are some significant “undiscussable topics” and a few “breaking points” within the executive team?

If there are some undiscussable topics and breaking points within middle management teams, they may still be pointed out and intervened by senior management. However, it’s rare for executive teams to have such possibilities; they must evolve themselves (just like how they have to go to the restroom themselves, it can’t be delegated).

The people who create problems often want to solve the problems they create, which is akin to taking one’s own life, indeed not easy.

So, the actual strategies of many executive teams are:

  1. Make do (including procrastination, burying one’s head in the sand, pretending not to notice, etc.).
  2. Shift and compensate (“Once the business is doing well, these problems will be solved”; “My relationship with another executive is strained, mainly because of the top executive’s actions,” etc.).
  3. Adaptation (mental victory: this is our wise choice; it may even turn out to be a blessing in disguise; not guiding other people’s lives, not getting involved in other people’s causes, etc.).

These strategies are understandable. We cannot blame those within the organization. If you were in their shoes, you would probably do the same. No one wants to be the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and no one wants to face complex interpersonal conflicts.

Are there “experts” in this field who specialize in helping executive teams solve these problems?

In my past professional experience, because I had to study organizations, executive teams were an unavoidable topic, so I actively or semi-actively participated in some of these matters.

My observation and conclusion are:

  1. Often, these types of problems need to be forced to be resolved by crises and significant external pressure.
  2. They require special individuals and special timing (one key unlocks one lock; insightful individuals; timely events, etc.).
  3. Solving these problems requires high-level skills (interpersonal skills, political skills, professional influence, etc.).
  4. It consumes a tremendous amount of mental energy (accepting misunderstanding and criticism, patience, resilience, being unattached, etc.).
  5. Replicability is relatively low (the problems in each executive team are different).
  6. Learning and practicing some professional knowledge can be helpful (such as Argyris’ organizational learning, team learning from the Fifth Discipline, etc.).

In conclusion, although there are some principles, beliefs, and cases to refer to in dealing with such issues, there are no experts and universally effective tricks. If someone claims to be an expert, it is undoubtedly due to occasional successes leading to misconceptions and arrogance.

I have a belief that often brings me some positive energy when dealing with issues within executive teams, and I’d like to share it with everyone. If you only raise problems without providing any solution direction, it will only add to the troubles.

Undiscussable topics and breaking points also vary in difficulty. Not all undiscussable topics are truly undiscussable, and not all breaking points are unrepairable.

From my observations, some undiscussable topics and breaking points can be reframed through iterative cognition and may not be truly undiscussable or unfixable. A significant portion of undiscussable topics and breaking points, under the right conditions, can be addressed and discussed.

  • For instance, when a company is in a phase of strategic exploration and the top leadership includes individuals with diverse aspirations, styles, and capabilities, it can be challenging for these individuals to genuinely appreciate and trust each other due to their differences. However, for the sake of strategic exploration, they may have to accept some temporary discomfort.
  • For example, what appears to be a misalignment in direction between the top two leaders may, in reality, be a result of a lack of communication.
  • For example, the founder is putting a lot of effort into a secondary business line that the current executives find unreliable. However, the current executives may not fully understand what the secondary business line is working on.
  • For example, as the company grows, new growth opportunities arise, but the marketing executive in the leadership team is struggling to keep up. At the same time, everyone highly values this executive’s contributions in the previous stage.

Issues like these, which seem like undiscussable topics and breaking points, can often be discussed without causing significant harm or offense when approached constructively. Moreover, every time such issues are addressed, it represents a pivotal moment for the evolution of the executive team.

Of course, it’s important to note that this is more likely to happen on the second night, after two full days and the first night’s groundwork, with a little push from a facilitator. Additionally, not every team can create an atmosphere conducive to this level of discussion.

By addressing some relatively easy undiscussable topics and breaking points, it becomes more possible to resolve those that initially seemed insurmountable.

This belief can also be summarized in a more straightforward manner: Accept the things I cannot change with serenity; have the courage to change the things I can; and most importantly, have the wisdom to distinguish between the two. (Note: This is a paraphrase of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer.)

In plain language, it means accepting unchangeable circumstances with a calm mind, taking action courageously on what can be changed or influenced, and most importantly, using wisdom to discern between the two (avoiding futile efforts on the unchangeable and indifference towards what can be changed).

This belief can bring positive energy when dealing with undiscussable topics and breaking points within executive teams. I hope it inspires you.

By embracing this belief and making proactive efforts, you can reduce the number and impact of undiscussable topics and breaking points within your executive team compared to your competitors.

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