We are all familiar with the phrase “elephant in the room” – an unspoken negative stimulus in a situation that everyone is aware of but with little recourse on how to handle it knowing all the while that the ‘elephant’ is compromising the integrity of the best and often obvious solution to the issue at hand. Every organization and team has a mutation of an elephant. There are indeed some elephants in our own homes. There are many strategies out there on how to deal with, or at least work through these elephants. However, I’d like to offer a challenge to whether the elephant is in the room as an existential threat or whether it is a reflection of what our brain interprets as an insurmountable and too risky a threat.
By definition, the phrase reflects an issue no one is comfortable bringing up much less talking about. If the challenge at hand is you are behind on sales for the quarter, as an example, then all kinds of actions can be taken to address it, such as offering discounts or bundling good and services. There are solutions to the inherent challenge. However, if the root cause of this challenge is that the product itself is terrible and customers do not like it as compared to other products, and no one on the sales team wants to bring that up to the executive management team, then the latter is a good example of the elephant. The real question to ask is not why sales are behind or what strategies could be implemented, or even why the elephant exists in the first place. The best question is why no one can simply talk about the elephant. This reason is individual and supported by group-think. The risk of speaking the truth is too high, some will argue. Business schools and MBA programs are replete with case studies of successful companies across industries whose subsequent downfall could be attributed to these elephants and their silencing impact. Neuroscience has now confirmed that our fears, on which we base our propensity of risk, are based entirely on our stored negative memories, not on a universal standard. In other words, the REAL elephant is not the one in the room, it is the one in our head.
This week, shift your focus during meetings from what is being said to what is not being said. Throw out a false elephant and see how many of the folks around you will call you on it. Think about your own elephants in your brain and of those in the minds of your team members. Leverage your power as a leader to make it okay, and even required, to talk about elephants. This will change both elephants!