Organizations, like individuals, find it hard to talk about the real issues. The “elephants in the room” we like to call them affectionately. We not only don’t like to talk about them we don’t like to even think about them.
The very thing that might kill us is the thing we pretend isn’t happening.
There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
~ Arthur Conan Doyle
6 Ways We Avoid the Elephant
If we pretend it’s not there maybe it will go away.
If we stay really busy hopefully it will get bored and move on.
If we decorate it nicely maybe we can pretend it’s a new piece of furniture.
If the boss isn’t saying anything about it there must not be an elephant.
If I talk bad about it with my peers maybe it will overhear and leave.
If we bring in a consultant they’ll tell us how to turn the elephant into a gazelle.
Avoiding the elephant is practically an art form in some organizations. Some even go as far as to build a circus AROUND the elephant so that it fits in. Even with the lessons learned over the last decade with Enron and the mortgage bubble we love to pretend we live in an “elephant free zone” or we declare some elephants to be “sacred” and so we continue to struggle around them as we try to maintain business as usual. “That won’t happen to us, we have core values and a groovy culture”. Sometimes the better things are going the more we resist elephant awareness.
Eventually the elephant is going to be unavoidable and by then it’s usually too late.
Leaders have an important mission. Make people see the elephant by whatever means necessary. That means taking some risks. You don’t necessarily run into a crowded room and yell “ELEPHANT!!!” Rather you think about how you can gracefully and urgently influence the organization to talk about things they don’t want to see or discuss. Sometimes the elephant may be the very framework on which the business is founded or the mission around which a team was organized. Bringing light to tough topics is what leaders do. Work from where you are and in your circle of influence.
Can you see the elephants in your conference room? You can probably call them out pretty quickly. You might have griped about them to a coworker today. Yet still you don’t take action. There are some pretty common reasons we avoid embracing our elephants.
We are afraid of change.
We are afraid of starting over.
We are afraid of admitting we’re wrong.
We’re afraid someone will get hurt.
We are afraid we won’t be able to deal with it.
The reality is that while you debate the elephant is growing larger and so are the potential consequences. You can decide to go big and bring in a crane or to slowly steer the elephant out of the organization but action is the only option. Elephants come in all forms: people issues, leader issues, culture issues, product issues, customer issues, strategy issues… and so on. What makes them different from your normal run of the mill squirrel or rabbit issue is that they are so big and unwieldy or potentially risky that no one wants to tackle them. So everyone runs around catching the rabbits and squirrels and proudly showing them off to one another while the elephant roams around as though it owns the place.
Start asking open-ended questions that begin to bring the elephant into view in ways that are difficult to excuse or rationalize. It may take a lot of attempts before one or more people begin to have an open discussion about it but stick with it. In the end if you don’t deal with it, none of the other stuff will matter. In fact a lot of what you are doing is probably feeding the elephant that is the source of your problems. There are many applications of this wisdom whether in business or life. So go get your pesky elephant out-of-the-way and free yourself and your team up for the real opportunities.
Any elephant stories to share? I’d love to hear about them and welcome your comments.
The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. ~Max DePree