Once upon a time there was an elephant in the room. It was a meeting room and there were 7 managers sitting around the table. The elephant was off to the side in front of the door. Everyone who entered the room had to go around the elephant to get to their seat, but no one seemed to notice. Ajna came in and stopped short, looked at the elephant, and as she took her set said, “When can we talk about this elephant? We need to get him out of here. We have to solve this problem.”
Do you ever feel like you are working in a fairy tale – you know the fairy tale with the naked king? The only one who could point out that the emperor had no clothes was a little boy. Ajna has seen many businesses suffer from the same indignation. No one wants to be the one to call out the obvious, because it takes, well, courage.
One of Ajna’s strength is courage. The courage to call out what no one else will. She is known in her organization as the champion of organizational courage and she pushes her peers to demonstrate theirs. Ajna found a great article on the Elephant subject in George Bradt’s article How Leaders Can Address The Elephant(s) In The Room and shared it with the leadership team.
Bradt lays out 3 types of issues that would qualify as “elephants”; Ignored, Imagined, Insistent. “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.”
The ignored elephant is probably the one most of us see most often. It’s the problem, say an outdated data system, that no one wants to tackle. Meeting after meeting gets stalled when this data system is involved. Instead of someone saying, “we need to fix the system”, everyone goes to a “work-around” and the main issue is never resolved. If the team would acknowledge that the data system is the problem, they could work on it together to solve the problem instead of ignoring it and hoping someone else will do it. It only takes on leader to rally the team.
The imagined elephant is a little trickier. Have you ever been the new person on a team and gone into a meeting where everyone was talking about “the incident”. An issue could not be resolved because there was a fear that “the incident” might occur again. You ask question to uncover the dreaded “incident” and find that it would be impossible for that problem to occur in this situation. The team had been so traumatized by the first incident that they projected it onto other projects. Once it was brought out in the open and discussed, the team realized it really wasn’t an issue at all. The elephant disappeared.
Last but not least is the insistent elephant. No matter how often you and your team members want it to go away, it shows up and stops you cold. Bradt says it often involves integrity or values and it is serious. “Most people have one or more values on which they cannot compromise. They may think they can look the other way when the organization does things they don’t feel good about. But sooner or later they realize it’s time to leave. When they see that elephant in the room, everything else pales in comparison.” He says to deal with the issue, “either by resolving the issue or by letting their owners take them away with them. You’ve already lost the commitment of people who feel their values are compromised. The question is whether you can win them back before they actually leave.”
In the end, someone needs to speak up. It’s just a question of when and how. The “who” should be easy. Whether you are leading a team, consulting with leaders, or just leading with your values, take Ajna’s advice and find the courage to be the one who sees clearly and is not afraid to speak up. It’s how Ajna found herself a seat at the table, which is how we want the story to end – happily ever after.
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