Taming the elephant: How frank discussions about unspoken issues can lead to higher productivity

Colin Payne

Elephant in the room – An English-language metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk that no one wants to discuss, or a condition of groupthink that no one wants to challenge.

Whether it’s impending layoffs, underlying morale issues, poor productivity, or some other widely recognized but officially unspoken organizational challenge, having a proverbial elephant in your room is a problem. It takes up a lot of psychic space and leaves little room for the good stuff, like creative problem solving, collaboration, culture building, and so on.

My biggest elephant was that time the publisher decided to confide in me (a junior staffer at the time) that the newspaper had been acquired by another company, then told me to keep it to myself until the official announcement. Needless to say, it made work tense in the following days. Everyone knew something wasn’t quite right. Nobody could talk about it and I was on my honor not to say anything.

It’s a bit of an extreme example, but one that outlines the basic challenge of having an elephant in your room. There’s a problem or change hanging around. Everybody sees it on some level. But nobody is willing or able to bring it up. It creates tension and keeps the organization from effectively moving forward.

What to do about that elephant?

From an employee’s perspective, having an elephant in the room is highly de-motivating and keeps you from giving your full attention to your work.

How, as a leader, do you deal with a situation like that?

As Forbes points out:

…If the elephant is an ignored but solvable problem, you can either tackle it head on or defer it. If the issue is a figment of someone’s imagination, you can often make it disappear by talking about it. If the elephant is an insistent disconnect with some basic value like integrity, you cannot get on with the rest of your meeting, program or initiative until you deal with it.

In each of these examples the answer to taming the elephant is: first naming it, then actually doing something about it. Yet many elephants get consistently deferred or ignored until they increase in size and take up the whole room.

Why? Because doing something about it means having an open discussion about that elephant, which can be a hard thing to do. It takes vulnerability for a leader to reach out to a group and be transparent about a significant change or have a frank discussion about a major morale issue.

And vulnerability isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.

The value of vulnerability

Since I came to ThoughtExchange, I’ve been lucky to encounter many leaders who embrace vulnerability. And, like any company, we have the occasional elephant show up. But it doesn’t stay hidden for very long.

Our leaders regularly use our software to have frank discussions with us about all manner of important, awkward and challenging matters And we help leaders of other organizations do the same every day: connect with staff, learn what people really think, and then bring them together to have open, civil and productive conversations about some of the most difficult topics you can imagine.

Along with learning how hard it can be to take that first shaky step towards creating a conversation that addresses the elephant, we’ve experienced the significant value that vulnerability can bring countless times.

To take another line from Forbes, the best leaders are vulnerable. And along with exhibiting true leadership that gives people space to innovate and create, seeking the truth inspires confidence. And when it comes down to it, the confidence created by a commonly shared truth is an incredible productivity tool.

The power of a shared understanding

Speaking from experience, I can say that nothing is more inspiring and motivating than consistently being heard and involved in important topics and decisions that affect me by leaders who aren’t afraid to be seen as humans.

Feeling you have a shared understanding with leadership that you helped shape is a powerful thing. It makes you want to do your best to help realize a collective vision and achieve common goals.

And, elephants are naturally powerful, empathetic and social creatures. So, why not grab that elephant by the trunk, make some eye contact, give it a big hug and bring it into an exercise that builds culture and inspires your people to do their best?

Have a story to share about an elephant in your room? Send it to us at stories@thoughtexchange.com.

About the Author

Colin Payne

Colin has been playing with words and telling stories for as long as he can remember. His knack for narratives led him to award-winning work in newspapers and seven successful years as an independent content creator. Along the way, Colin learned to use a camera. Pretty well. He has created images for major corporate clients and national publications while winning international awards for his nature photography. Colin’s quest for meaningful work and drive to do some good in the world eventually led him to ThoughtExchange. He’s continually stoked to help tell the ThoughtExchange story and share how leaders are moving their organizations forward by bringing people together. When not at the keyboard, Colin can be found chasing his two young children or exploring the mountains around his home in Nelson, BC. Find Colin on Twitter @colinpayne_te.