Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Kerrying On

Speaking the Unspeakable

The following article was first published on March 22, 2006.

A couple of decades ago, I started a long and painful battle of trying to help save American manufacturing. In a quest to find out what needed to change in the good old U. S. of A. where companies were routinely losing jobs and market share, I interviewed hundreds of managers and employees. The first question I asked was, “If you could change one thing around here, what would it be?” The very first person I talked to responded without hesitation. “Get the skilled trades to work six hours a day. We currently pay them for ten to twelve hours, but they don’t work much. Get them to work six hours and we can turn a profit.”

This seemed a bit harsh. Surely there were a lot of people who put in an honest day’s work. Surely there were plenty of model employees. And indeed there were. However, it wasn’t long until I learned that a lot of people—managers, employees, and yes, even many skilled craftspeople themselves—were worried. Despite the rhetoric spoken at every election about the unbeatable American worker, they worried because many facilities were embarrassingly less productive than their offshore counterparts. They produced at a rate far lower than the best. Output per employee (the gold standard of productivity) ran as low as 40 percent below best-in-class.

The solution seemed obvious: people needed to know about this enormous gap. We needed to shout from the rooftops about the impending doom. Then maybe we could get back on track. But then I remembered—that first guy I interviewed had leaned forward and whispered his recommendation to me, despite the fact that we were alone in an office. He was nervous about bringing up the topic in public.

In fact, this was always the case. Dozens of people brought up the issue, but nobody mentioned it in front of others—or with much volume. After all, to say that a certain group of employees wasn’t putting in a full day could be viewed as insensitive and insulting. To further explain that many were delaying their efforts on purpose—in order to fall behind schedule and then earn overtime wages—well, that was politically incorrect. Never mind that it was largely true—you couldn’t say it aloud.

I argued with the executives I was working with that we needed to gather every single employee under one roof and announce that at the current production rates, it wouldn’t be long until all of us would be working for minimum wage. That should get some attention. They chose to say nothing. Later, when I worked with a facility that had just lost the right to manufacture half of the parts they had been assembling, I called for a funeral. I wanted to put each part that would now be manufactured off shore in a coffin and parade the dead hunks of metal around in order to mourn their loss. Nobody was having it. You couldn’t make a big deal about lost work. You couldn’t even talk about it.

I was growing so frustrated with this shared silence that a couple of years later, when I was working in still another plant and it came time to negotiate the contract, I implored the HR folks to hammer home the issue of productivity. But it never happened. Yield and output per employee discussions were actually disallowed. Eventually, after much bitter debate between management and the union, nobody was even permitted to say the word “productivity” aloud. It could only be referred to as “The P Word” (I’m not making this up). If things continued to deteriorate, one day most, if not all, of their manufacturing jobs would be lost, and yet nobody could talk about one of the primary causes.

How could anyone fix this? I didn’t have a clue.

Now, travel with me around the world to find a solution I discovered quite by accident. It’s twenty years later, and my partners and I are studying what is known as entertainment-education. It’s a branch of communication theory that has had a remarkable impact on change theory. Two of us met with Professor Arvind Singhal of Ohio University in his office in Athens, Ohio. He energetically explained what recently happened in northern India, not far from his hometown.

After watching others fruitlessly fight the devastating impact of a caste system that had been deeply rooted for hundreds of years, professor Singhal and other change agents decided to take a new path. Inspired by the work of Everett Rogers, they created a radio soap opera as a means of changing long-held norms. Here’s how radio waves were aimed at shared values.

Three times a week, listeners would tune in to the adventures of a handful of engaging characters who faced many of the same problems the listeners themselves faced every day. However, the writers behind these radio programs were interested in more than mere ratings (and their ratings were quite high). They wanted to encourage people to talk about the debilitating caste system. It was high time it was abolished, but as long as there were people who had been cast as “untouchables,” and as long as untouchables were largely a taboo topic, the system would continue.

Nobody preached anything on the show; the characters simply lived through problems the writers wanted to address. At the end of each program, a renowned figure from the region would recap the events by asking pointed questions such as, “What will they do next?” “How should they handle this tough problem?”

After each episode, people would gather at work or at a pub or around a well and talk about what was taking place in the show. Everyone wanted to discuss the latest goings-on. The impact was nothing short of sensational. Dr. Singhal tells of a family who routinely listened to the show and was inspired to make a bold move. The oldest daughter in the family was soon to be married. They decided to use the wedding celebration (which lasts for several days) to take a stand on the caste system by inviting untouchables.

To avoid a total scandal, the family encouraged their unlikely guests to clean up for the celebration and even bought them some new but inexpensive clothing. The first day of the celebration, the father, surrounded by friends and family, asked one of his unexpected guests to bring him a glass of water. (These are people who are not allowed to cast a shadow on others.) The guest did so and the father then “ingested” something poured by an untouchable.

The server then offered water to the rest of the guests. Several took it, others said they weren’t thirsty, and still others got up and left. As the celebration continued, the family took more and more steps to involve these “untouchables” until they achieved a more widespread acceptance. Multiply these powerful events by thousands of people across hundreds of communities and eventually values change. In fact, this radio drama alone eliminated many of the debilitating practices in the region in less than a year.

Why were these creative change agents able to succeed where others had failed? Because they found a way to get thousands of people to openly talk about what previously had been an undiscussable issue. Audience members identified with the radio characters, talked about their challenges, and came to agreements about the need for change.

At the heart of this effort, lies one key principle: You can’t change something you can’t talk about. If you want to see long-held but debilitating traditions go away, you have to find a way to hold what had once been “undicussable” crucial conversations.

Now, let’s go back to the manufacturing problem I referred to earlier—one that has recently led to the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs in Middle America. What if we had talked openly twenty years ago about what leaders referred to as the “opiate of overtime”? What if we had been able to go public with the fact that thousands of people were purposely slowing down in order to maximize their own income?

To this day, political candidates and talk show hosts wring their hands in public about the loss of American jobs, but nobody dares talk about what really happened. Sure, we now go head on with employees who do the same job offshore for far less money, but how will we ever know what would have happened had we been able to improve our output numbers to competitive levels? And how would we ever improve without making the problem part of the public debate?

This challenge cuts across every area of our lives. If you’ve ever broken into a sweat over the prospect of having the “sex talk” with your pre-teen, then you know what it’s like to step up to a topic you’re not quite sure how to discuss in the open. Or, how about this one? If you’re a nurse watching a doctor fail to follow protocol and possibly put a patient at risk, you know how difficult it can be to speak openly about something nobody else talks about. Even more likely, you know what it’s like not to say anything. Who is stupid enough to bring up a taboo topic?

So, what’s a person to do? I won’t be developing a radio show anytime soon, but I’ll never again work on a problem that people can only whisper to me as they glance around nervously without first examining what it’ll take to move the topic into the public spotlight. When it comes to widely held social norms, you have to get a whole lot of people talking about the need to change. That’s the only way you can make it safe to first talk about and then resolve chronic problems.

Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

11 thoughts on “Speaking the Unspeakable”

  1. Bernard Hertlein

    Absolutely right on point. I watched the same mentality destroy the UK coal mining, car manfacturing and ship building industries years ago. Now that I live in the US I am seeing it happen all over again.

  2. KS

    Having worked with staff that works 8 or 10 hour shifts, there are some things that might be beneficial to consider. Maybe maintaining high productivity for long work days isn’t the ideal. Maybe achieving high productivity for shorter work days is the ideal. It is difficult to maintain focus for hours on end, and there is the issue of physical exhaustion. Where I live heat is an additional challenge. Sometimes raising their pay but decreasing the number of hours they work per day increases productivity for each of those work hours. If they know they have to continue working no matter what, they will automatically tend to pace themselves early in the day. If employers set a minimum amount of work to be accomplished and a minimum number of hours they could increase productivity while protecting their employees’ health, wellbeing and morale.

  3. Kenneth Zimmer

    Unions have helped workers get better working conditions, benefits, pay, and protection from harassment. Unfortunately the pendulum can’t help but swing. Unions, like personal injury lawyers who convince their clients they are sick, miserable, and can no longer function, incite their members with talk of misery and mistreatment. Wages go up, benefits go up, productivity doesn’t change or goes down since workers are convinced the company that employs them is now the enemy. And the pendulum swings, but back the other way. Jobs are lost, companies are torn apart, and now both sides are unhappy.

  4. Bruce Reirden

    Reading the article “Speaking the Unspeakable” brought back a wave of strong memories from the early 1970’s. After serving my country for 4 years, I became a college student and during the summers I worked at a manufacturing company as a machinist. It was unionized and even at that time competition from overseas was having a profound impact on its ability to compete.

    As a Summer employee I was at the bottom of the pay scale and the jobs I was given were basic, but produced integral parts for their manufactured product lines. I was (still am) a curious and inventive person and got quickly bored with repetitive tasks. On two occasions I was given “piece work” jobs where I made my pay by producing a number of pieces per hour. The rates as they were set were good. Not being aware of the union way of thinking, I created “jigs” (tools that aid in the manufacturing/production process) that in the first case increased the production rate by a factor of 4; in the second case by a factor greater than 8. Management was thrilled and gave me great praise. I was beaming with pride until I got a visit from the union steward who made it perfectly clear that I had “busted the rate” and if I ever did it again bad things would happen. Fortunately, I soon returned to school and graduated.

    The company continued to struggle and attempted to come out with new and innovative products, but folded shortly afterward; as did the union local. They simply could not compete with [at the time] Japanese efficiency. Sadly, every employee lost his/her job. For me, it was a real eye-opening view into the declining American manufacturing world, the “us VS the enemy” attitude the union had towards the company and the resistance that workers had towards change.

  5. Marie Maly

    Kerry, I’m going to vote for you as a write-in for President! Which party are you affiliated with? Seriously, the answer to much of today’s problems (perceived or real) in America comes down to the simply truths that your article so elegantly point out. I will be saving this article in my folder of “tips” and expect to be able to make good use of it. Thanks.

  6. Terrie

    Powerful. Keep it coming! I took the survey. I want to hear the results! Thank you for your thoughtful conversations.

  7. Steve

    Had management paid labor a decent rate in the first place perhaps there wouldn’t have been the need to make overtime to earn a decent wage. I find your story incomplete but appreciate the key point about the need to discuss such concerns freely.

  8. RP

    Interesting article. What happened in India brought 2 things to mind for me:

    1. Modern Family has been a hit TV series since 2009. The show features a same-sex couple who have adopted a child. Did this “entertainment” influenced the American public and result in 37 states legalizing same-sex marriage to some degree between 2003-2015, and the subsequent decision of the supreme court to rule any additional state bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional in 2015? Is this an example of a show changing long-held norms?

    2. I read the story of Owen Suskind, an regressive-autistic boy, who uses the characters in Disney movies that he watches repeatedly to guide his emotional growth and process real-life situations. Is this an extreme case of 1. above? Even if it is not relevant to this article, I urge you to read it.

  9. Adrian

    What a fascinating case study. I can think of one very important way to implement it. Shooting deaths are horrifyingly commonplace here in the US and thousands of tragedies happen daily in the form of murders, suicides, and accidental shootings, but the instant you even mention any type of solution, however benign or well-intentioned, people just about start foaming at the mouth. Maybe this is the type of solution we need to at least be able to start some intelligent discussions on this heated topic and be able to come up with some common-sense solutions to these needless deaths.

  10. Duane Penzien

    I couldn’t agree more with this subject. There are simply too many things in today’s society that cannot be discussed out loud, and that silence definitely hurts our country. (And, for that matter, any other country.) Finding ways to bring these things out for open discussion and reflection help people to decide things that they would never even think of before. And who knows? Maybe more of this would lead to less of a whole lot of bad things and our world could be a safer and healthier place.

    Great Article!

  11. Ralph C
    From your article: “At the heart of this effort, lies one key principle: You can’t change something you can’t talk about.”
    True enough…
    Unfortunately, it seems as though you can’t change somethings you CAN talk about.
    Hyperlink above is for a transcripted version of a broadcast done on “This American Life” about the NUMMI joint venture- a car plant created by General Motors and Toyota.
    It contains interviews with both workers and management.
    Turns out that as problematic as the unions and workers were, management was also unwilling to change to more effective and efficient methods.
    An excerpt:
    Frank Langfitt
    Those exact numbers– GM went from 47% of the US market in the mid 1970s to 35% a decade later. One reason car execs were in denial was Detroit’s insular culture. Yes, unions and management were always at each other’s throats, and yes, GM and its suppliers had a destructive relationship that seemed to almost discourage quality, but everyone had settled into comfortable roles in this dysfunctional system and learned to live with it. And in the late 1980s, with their market share in free fall, Jeffrey Liker says they were more apt to blame others than themselves.
    Jeffrey Liker
    I worked with all the big three at the time, automakers, and it was common in all three automakers. They all believed that if the consumers think we have quality problems, it’s because Consumer Reports is misleading them, and they’re biased toward Toyota. They all believed that Consumer Reports was against them, that there was somewhat of a myth of Japanese quality.
    My brother has worked as an independent consultant for several manufacturing companies here in the states. He’s a systems engineer who has been hired to fix problems that on the outside look like manufacturing issues, but in fact typically stem from management problems. And you know what? He is usually fired when he brings up the fact that they need to change. (And he’s a highly-trained, thorough, and tactful guy, not some shoot-from-the-hip, quick-fix artist). They then hire another set of consultants, hoping to hear something different.

    Even with a gun to their heads, (metaphorically speaking), humans show an amazing resistance to change. It must be hardwired into our DNA, and good luck in changing that basic bit of ego-driven psychology.

    I do like the story about a radio show having such massive effects. What do you think a modern American version of this might be? Oprah used to have tremendous influence a short while ago… perhaps she should be tapped for her expertise!


Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox