When an elephant is in the room

Have you ever had to confront an elephant in the room? You know exactly what the phrase means–there is a problem several people know about and no one wants to discuss. In business, these elephants can bring even the mightiest organization to a grinding halt.

Small elephants can be as unpleasant as a coworker with violently bad breath or a married manager having an affair with a direct-report. Large elephants? Ever had a long term valued team member who can no longer do their job? Talking about these “elephants” means confronting an uncomfortable realty; the high-risk emotional conversations that most of us avoid.

These are the issues that trigger the inevitable changes people fear.

Having elephants lingering throughout your company is one of the many examples of emotion and business not mixing well. Emotion provides reasons to avoid the difficult conversations. Emotion clouds thinking and allows need to be trumped by want. When emotion controls decision making, avoidable problems are often their offspring. Problems, sometimes fatal, I’ve seen far too much of in my decades of consulting.

Once emotion is removed and need prevails over want, dealing with these issues becomes simple, not easy. Here’s my four-step approach for resolution.

Step 1: Acknowledge the elephant by discussing it with the affected stakeholders.

Remember, as uncomfortable as the elephant may be, it is a truth everyone knows about already. Putting the elephant into the light of day is usually a relief to all dedicated and concerned staff.

Acknowledgement ensures the impacted stakeholders are on the same page and aware of the critical details of the issue. Without this step, dangerous and inaccurate assumptions can be made. Until the organization can openly admit and recognize the elephant, the best solutions will remain elusive.

Step 2: Acknowledge that something has to change.

Be realistic and objective about the good and the bad of resolving the elephant issue. Focus on the good.

Step 3: Ask for help devising and implementing a plan for dealing with the elephant.

Some elephants can be “removed from the room” with the collective wisdom of internal staff. When emotions have taken control of the elephant, it helps to work with an external resource. The key point here is this:

These elephant problems are highly caustic because they undermine more than opportunity, they erode morale.

Those of us who lead organizations deal with issues of survival on a daily basis. Until you eliminate the elephants in your organization, your survival will be threatened.


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