Finance and Accountancy Briefing
Tackling totems and taboos in business
In other words, totems and taboos are unchallenged assumptions, unquestionable myths, or fears that cannot be discussed. Like Freud’s taboos, these ‘are forcibly maintained by an irresistible fear’. There is “an internal certainty…that any violation will lead to intolerable disaster”.1 Such a belief system can paralyse – or even kill – a business.
Often the explanation for lack of agility lies in a phenomenon we call ‘totems and taboos’ – a phrase used by Freud, but one which has special resonances in business. A totem is an idea that is so ‘sacred’ that it cannot be questioned. A taboo is a question that cannot be asked. These are often two sides of the same coin: for example, a totem could be the idea that ‘our company is the best, we don’t tolerate failure’, and a taboo could be the question ‘what can we learn from our mistakes?’
There are many examples of ideas that cannot be questioned in certain companies, for example:
• only one business model (perhaps fat gross margins) works for us
• only one market is important to us
• every customer is a valuable customer
• people who leave the company are ‘bad’
• our business is only about technology
• one individual has all the answers
• the board knows what it is doing, so we should just execute whatever it tells us to do.
To read more about Totems and Taboos, please download the briefing.
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