Paper Research

Topics: Decision making, Taboo, Decision theory Pages: 19 (4568 words) Published: April 16, 2013
Taboo Scenarios
Author(s): Paul J.H. Schoemaker and Philip E. Tetlock
Reviewed work(s):
Source: California Management Review, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Winter 2012), pp. 5-24 Published by: University of California Press
Stable URL: . Accessed: 14/08/2012 17:58
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Taboo Scenarios:

Paul J.H. Schoemaker
Philip E. Tetlock

Taboos are a universal feature of social systems. Even the most avowedly open-minded organizations place tacit constraints on what can be said and even thought. Business leaders ignore these constraints at their peril. This article examines the role of the sacred, profane, and taboo in society, and links these phenomena to the psychology of moral outrage. In public debates, taboos are rarely as absolute as first assumed and can often be reframed as tragic choices. Leaders must perform a delicate balancing act if they are to prevent taboos from blinding managers to either threats or opportunities. On the one hand, leaders who let their intellectual curiosity get the better of them risk paying a steep career price. On the other, leaders who bury their heads in the sand risk even worse consequences. Navigating this dilemma brings into sharp tension the policy prescriptions of advocates of authentic leadership (who see honesty as a trump virtue) and proponents of Realpolitik (who see organizational hypocrisy and obfuscation as unfortunate but unavoidable tactics necessary in an imperfect world.) (Keywords: Corporate culture, Decision making, Ethics, Organizational behavior, Risk management, Leadership)


ompanies, industries, nation-states, and international institutions— neither size nor status confers protection—are routinely rocked by dire scenarios that catch their leaders off guard. Recent examples include British Petroleum’s failure to foresee the risk of deep water drilling; drug companies underestimating the consequences of promoting flawed products such as Vioxx and Avandia; the Catholic Church’s refusal to address the systematic abuses of pedophilic priests; dictators in the Middle East miscalculating the depth of opposition to their repressive regimes; the nuclear power industry’s presumption in Japan that their reactors could withstand earthquakes and floods; Greece fudging its case for European Union admission and embarking on reckless spending (while grossly undercollecting taxes). Each of these cases is complex, entailing multiple causes: powerful players, value conflicts, extreme events, media hype, and social

The authors would like to thank Jim Austin, Tom Donaldson, Barbara Mellers, J. Edward Russo, and Mike Useem for their valuable feedback.


VOL. 54, NO. 2




Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable

networking. However, a common thread binds them together. The disastrous outcomes all caught their leaders by surprise and woefully unprepared. To add insult to injury, the media love scandals involving moral, not just cognitive, failings (see sidebar, Violated Taboos Make Good News).

Violated Taboos Make Good News
Violated taboos attract attention. As recent headlines demonstrate, news stories that engender public outrage usually imply some violation...
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