In the world of Harry Potter, Unspeakables refer to Ministry of Magic employees who work in the Department of Mysteries. Little is known about their workplace or the specific jobs done by these wizards or witches as employees of this Department are forbidden from discussing their jobs or disclosing any information about their department, hence the name "Unspeakable. MindSet uses the term a bit differently to describe not a job, but rather a frequent phenomenon that occurs in the workplace and harms employee performance.
Human relationships can become cluttered with unspoken issues; a clutter born of lingering negative emotion – often fear, anger, or hurt – felt by one or both of the parties. Although both parties know (or at least sense) that the relationship is not where it should be, or is less than it once was, neither find the courage to speak openly of the unspeakable, i.e., how they are feeling. The result is a seemingly functional relationship on the surface, but built on a shaky foundation that may well collapse when put under strain.
Note that pointing out the faults of a colleague is not addressing an unspeakable – that falls under the rubric of coaching, excuse making, giving feedback, or complaining depending on the individual’s style and intent. No, an unspeakable is often an issue that may not have a clear right or wrong, but has the power to clutter up what would otherwise be a more open, trusting, productive, and enjoyable relationship.
Should all unspeakables be brought into the open? Absolutely not – most anyone who had been part of a lasting relationship can attest to that. :-) Differences born of core value disagreements are not often improved by discussion, and basic personality structures are not easily amenable to change – it is a sign of maturity when we can lovingly accept our colleagues, warts and all.
Yet many unspeakables would be less bothersome if the parties did openly talk about how they are feeling, i.e., addressing the elephant in the room. So why do we not talk of the unspeakable? Reason number one, two and three: It takes courage to talk about feelings – especially where there may be an unstated cultural norm that implies that feelings are not welcome in the workplace. To speak of an unspeakable may be seen as an indication of weakness, and there is also the risk that the other party will deny the existence of the issue, leaving you feeling exposed and even foolish.
Skilled supervisors understand that it is their burden to initiate discussion of the unspeakable, for as much courage as it may require from them, it takes even more for an employee to do so! Good leaders understand the power, and positive cultural impact, that comes from finding that courage.
Great relationships can withstand the winds of openness; they are strengthened by periodic gusts.
~ Kim Hoogeveen