In recent weeks, I have been following the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry with some interest. The Inquiry showed that systemic issues were a major contributing factor to the hotel quarantine failure that resulted in the second wave in Victoria. It started me thinking about the elephant in the room.

The elephant is a large animal. Even a baby elephant is going to occupy a lot of space. As managers, we know what ‘having an elephant in the room’ means. It is an issue that everyone is acutely aware of, but no one wants to talk about. An ‘elephant in the room’ can derail a lot of organisational goals. So, let’s talk about the elephant today.


Elephants in the rooms are taboos

Every organisation will have its ‘elephants’. Unfortunately, not every organisation has a culture to confront these elephants. In many organisations, ‘the elephant’ is an undiscussable topic. A taboo that everyone avoids at all cost.

In my role as a leadership coach, I have come across some pretty big elephants in the room. Sometimes, the problem is twofold – personal reluctance and organisational defence.

Our basic instinct in the workplace is to talk about ‘safe topics’ – i.e. the topics that we think others will bring up if we don’t mention them. It is a diffusion of responsibility. We rationalise our decision of not saying something by assuming it’s someone else’s problem or thinking that the problem will work itself out. Additionally, we are concerned about peer pressure and social rejection. We think to ourselves: “If I say something, will I upset the rest of the team? Are they going to exclude me from everything now?” So, we don’t say anything.

Likewise, our leaders could be our problem. If we have bosses who are defensive when we raise an issue with them, we will learn very quickly to keep things to ourselves.

Neither scenarios are ideal. If the elephant in the room is not resolved it becomes a problem. An undiscussable culture feeds organisational distrust, demotivates staff, strains relationships and affects productivity.


Elephants and leaders

The elephant in the room may have been in existence long before you joined the organisation but you – as the leader – can do something about the beast. It begins with self-awareness. Self-awareness is knowing who you are and what others think you are. It is the ability to see yourself objectively and clearly.

Many of us think we know who we are. We spend a lot of time dressing up our resumes to convince an employer we have all those wonderful abilities to be a visionary leader, a team player, a great communicator, a creative problem solver and so forth. After all, we are the only person who has direct access to our every thought, feelings, and experiences. So, who better than us to know ourselves, right? But, a recent Harvard Business School study revealed that out of 95% of people who claimed they are self-aware, only 10-15% actually are.

As a leader, you probably know it is important to pay attention to what your workers have to say. But do you know you can enhance productivity by also paying attention to what your workers did not say?


Here are some questions to consider:


1. Whose contributions in your team do you value most?

Are you prioritising the contributions of those who can think quickly on their feet over the ones who may need more time to reflect on a problem? Are the men in your team given more airtime than the women? Are you showing preference to the employees who are physically present over the ones who are working remotely from home?


2. What personal needs have precedence over others?

Are you being fair to everyone? Are you giving the flexibility to the mother with a child over the single dad with teenagers? Are you treating people with physical health problems differently from those who may be suffering from mental health challenges? Are you on ‘buddy terms’ with the staff who share similar interests with you but barely acknowledging the ones who have nothing in common with you?


3. What bad behaviours are you permitting?

A staff seeks you out to complain about a colleague. Do you entertain them? You allow your favourite employee to have special privileges others don’t have. Everyone in the office knows about it. A manager repeatedly produces poor quality work that others have to fix. You don’t do anything.


4. Are you your worse enemy?

Do you say ‘I’ or ‘we’ when talking about the department’s success? Are you impatient when an employee is struggling with a new skill? Do you brush aside someone else’s idea in meetings? Are you expecting an immediate response to your 4 a.m. emails?


How to bring up the elephant

So, you’ve noticed there’s an elephant in the room. What do you do next? Calming the elephant in the room can be messy but if you want a happy, motivated team who are productive and effective, you may have to tame the beast first.

Identify and name the issue. It can be hard bringing up the elephant in a team environment because of the group’s dynamics. A team that has been working together has some history – there is established trust, mutual respect, groupthink, and peer pressure. Naming the elephant is not easy. The best advice I can give is to do it gently and with care. Be sensitive to the feelings and reactions of the team. Remember, it’s not just the responsible individual (s) who will be upset. The rest of them can also be affected.

Focus on the issue, not the individual. Issues and goals do not have feelings. People do. Unfortunately, elephants in the room are manifested by humans. The best approach is to focus on the big picture consequences rather than the person’s faults or shortcomings. For example, if a certain behaviour is affecting the timeliness of a project, then use the project deadline as the starting point of the discussion.

Make it easier for everyone. The purpose of bringing up the elephant in the room is not to embarrass or humiliate anyone. So, the best way to handle a sensitive topic is to be genuinely concerned and slightly inquisitive. The more comfortable people feel discussing the elephant, the more likely you will achieve results.

Don’t dwell. Once the issue has been discussed and resolved, move on. Don’t dwell on it. It becomes personal after that.


How to bring it up with the boss:

‘I’ve noticed a dynamic on our team that I am curious/concerned about. Can I share it with you?’

How to invite a dialogue with your team:

“I know every company will have sensitive topics. Our organisation is no exception but that’s not the culture I want to create. Would you be willing to share with me a topic that you have avoided bringing up so far? What commitment do you need from me so you can speak freely about the topic?”


The ‘black elephant’ on the executive floor

Given the current global crisis we are in, I feel it’s important to talk a little about ‘the black elephant’. The term most commonly used to describe the pandemic is ‘black swan’ but I prefer Adam Sweidan’s ‘black elephant’ instead. It is a term derived from a cross between a ‘black swan’ and ‘the elephant in the room’. It describes an inevitable disaster that no one wants to address.

History has produced many examples to learn from. The 2008 financial crisis, Facebook-Cambridge Analytical’s 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Scandal, Marriot International 2018 cybersecurity breach and climate change. In the past, we can dismiss these threats as local or regional, but the world today is interconnected and a disruption in one part of the world can rapidly spread to the rest of the world. The COVID-19 crisis is all the proof we need that it can happen.

As business owners, we have a responsibility to build organisational resilience. Organisational resilience is the ability to anticipate and respond to change or disruption. To be resilient, companies must monitor potential black elephant events and plan a response that can handle every kind of threat – including the ones that becomes an existential one for the business.

The human spirit is a wonderful thing. ‘Phoenix rising from the ashes’ is the phrase that pops into my head every time I see or read about how individuals, groups and companies around the world have survived the fallout of the virus.

The phoenix is a mythical bird in Greek mythology. It has a fiery plumage that burns for 100 years. At the end of its life, it settles on a nest, catches on fire, and is turned to ashes. But from these ashes, a new phoenix is reborn, and the cycle of life continues. There are hundreds of examples of the human spirit. The world has just completed a global experiment in working from home and guess what? We found out collectively, it can work! In Melbourne, our real estate industry is showing homes virtually and actually selling them as well. Our local barista is a grocer. And the boutique distillery now makes hand sanitisers.

Resilient companies do not just survive a crisis. They thrive. This can only happen when we have the right type of leadership in place. Leaders within the organisation with the business acumen to think creatively and respond proactively about the future. Inclusive leaders with a clear set of values who can inspire and motivate their people to respond effectively to pull the business out of the threat. The type of agile leaders who can see and act on the possibilities of doing things differently or better.

Taking on the elephant in the room takes courage, time, patience, and heart. If we don’t start discussing the undiscussable, we cannot ensure our people, or our business, are operating to their full potential.


Book a discovery call with Iris and see how she can support you or your organisation in improving leadership skills, productivity and team engagement.

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