Show Me the Elephant

Why is that leaders and the teams they lead often ignore their issues until they have no choice but to take action? This despite the fact that, more often than not, waiting longer limits their universe of available responses.

I work with a practice group in a professional services firm. They have regular meetings of timekeepers and staff. Lately at those meetings there was an elephant in the room – anxiety about how the economy was going to affect them. Rather than talk about what was really on their minds, they discussed administrative matters and client issues.

In a recent discussion with the practice group leader, I asked – “so what are you and your group going to to do to address the downturn?” My client hadn’t really thought about it. Like many, the leader hoped the team could ride it out. I suggested “name it and claim it." It was simple – raise the issue for the group and talk about it. Some questions to ask:

· How busy are we?
· If we keep doing things the way we are now, what will happen?
· What do we need to do differently?

In such discussions, keep nothing off the table. On the cost side, address reductions – staffing, salary and other expenses. On the revenue side, consider new business activities, think about rates and fixed fee alternatives, figure out how to get paid sooner. Address the issues that have to be addressed. Get cveryone to take ownership of the problem. Put the elephant front and center, and deal with it as a group.

What happened? People got to share their anxieties in an appropriate way, own the problem and develop a solution together. They appreciated the opportunity to think out loud with each other.

Does it really matter why we procrastinate on such issues? Fear is probably at the heart of it. But the origin doesn’t necessarily alter the action. What needs to be done is to name it, so we can claim it.

Do you have an elephant in the room that needs to be called out?

7 replies
  1. Doug Cornelius
    Doug Cornelius says:

    Stewart –

    What do you think are the factors that resulted in ignoring the elephant? (Love the picture)

    I find the problem is that leader does not solicit input on the agenda or the discussion from the larger group. "Any other questions?" during a meeting usaully just means "and we are done now."


  2. Andrea Novakowski
    Andrea Novakowski says:

    Stewart – I find this situation also occurs in one – on – one sessions.

    The leader is the one who is responsible for setting the stage/culture of open communication.  However, we know that doesn’t always happen.

    How would you handle this situation in a top down organization where openness is not part of the culture?

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I think Doug makes a strong point. In my work, I often ask the client what we refer to as a "repeating question" and a question that focuses on the self-limiting behavior. We ask and answer this question for 15-30 minutes (depending…) without stopping..although the client will usually pause, go inside and think (a very good thing) once the "stock", "logical" responses are made. This type of question forces the unconscious to arise so we can get to to the heart of the matter (root cause issues)…the Real elephants.

    So, in this case, one of the questions we might ask is, "What’s right about not talking about the economy?" (Note: something has to be ‘right’ since the leader has found some benefit from not doing it)

    In this exercise, as Doug points out, the major cause is fear-based…here, fear that people might leave, people might not trust me or someone else, my resistance in dealing with others’s fears, anxieties and emotions, my fear that I might be let go, that I don’t have my finger on the economic pulse, that others might view me as weak, that I don’t know how to facilitate such a discussion, etc. As we continue to ask and answer, most often the responses will point more and more to "me" and less and less to "it, him, her and them." That is, the "truth" will come out.

    Once we have completed, we then debrief, and create an action (coaching)plan that first allows the client to consciously deal with his/her own personal (emotional intelligence) issues, limiting beliefs, self-sabotaging behaviors, etc., to gain confidence, self-awareness, knowledge, skills, etc. and then take concerted and direct, conscious action to support the team/group/organizational to discuss the tough issues. No tap dancing around the elephants.


  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    To continue my thread, if I may, Andrea and Doug, then one of the questions posed to the leadership would be, "What’s right about not allowing openness to be a part of our workplace culture…"  Hmmm.

    More elephants yet uncovered – if one has the strength , courage will and determination to do such big game hunting. Many don’t.

  5. On the Money
    On the Money says:

    I’ve just witnessed an organisation fall to its knees and key employees are leaving already. The reason? One very senior player has lost their confidence and blew three major contract negotiations. Nobody offered her support – and that she would have taken umbridge anyway is a major factor in all of this – and so the show carried on regardless … each time losing the company credibility. Ideally, she should have been replaced, but her husband also holds a key top chair and he is – despite immense talents for the business – under her thumb within their personal relationship. Ideally, they should both have been replaced and redesignated. But no, this didn’t happen and the group is losing key talend all over the team and it will come perilously close to folding. Madness really … and lack of strong but fair leadership …


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