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Tackling totems and taboos [vnd8-3YdleU]
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Tackling your organisation's totems and taboos: breaking down barriers to change

The unpredictability of the post-recession business environment means that businesses need to be as agile as possible in their response to change. However, a surprising number of organisations are finding that their efforts to become more agile are being hampered by unseen obstacles.

The solution to this challenge often lies in addressing organisational ‘totems and taboos’ – ideas so ‘sacred’ that they cannot be questioned, and questions too frightening to be asked.

By thinking in terms of totems and taboos, organisations can identify deep-seated barriers to change that can be challenged or removed to improve agility and fitness.


To receive a free copy of our full thought leadership on this topic, please click here.


Why do totems and taboos work against change?

All sorts of beliefs can become totems and taboos within an organisation: for example, a belief about the business model (such as ‘every customer is valuable’) or about individuals’ powers (‘the board is always right’).

The tendency to form totems and taboos arises from basic human traits, well known to psychology, such as the conservatism and confirmation biases. The fact that these traits are part of human nature explains why the resultant totems and taboos are so hard to dislodge. Under market pressure, a company (not least its senior management) tends to harden its support of the totem or taboo, because it provides comfort and reassurance.

Totems and taboos can be fatal in business

Given the speed of change and the level of pressure in today’s economy, there is no longer room for totems and taboos. Their existence can lead to complacency – arguably the number one reason companies fail. They can also cause an organisation to miss trends, overlook technologies, misunderstand customers, constrain markets, or miss out on capabilities by ignoring differentiating skills.

Banishing totems and taboos to make way for change

What can you do when you suspect that totems and taboos are getting in the way of necessary change? There are three key factors to consider: 

Evidence. Confront the organisation with evidence that its belief system is false. This may be obtained through research, talking to customers, learning from failures, or adopting a longer time horizon. 

Culture. Change the culture so that previous totems and taboos are not simply replaced by others. Aim to enable continuous testing and criticism within the organisation, creating a diverse workforce with contrarian views.  

Leadership. Clearly, this cultural change needs to come from the top. If all else fails (perhaps because top management is too wedded to its totems), structural change – and potentially new leadership – may be necessary.

To find out more about how PA can help your organisation overcome its totems and taboos and manage change successfully, contact us now.

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