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.