We’ve all been there.
There is an obvious situation that needs to that needs attention. Still, nobody involved wants to even acknowledge the challenge, let alone talk about it to solve it. So, we go along, coordinating with the elephant, working around it, or blending it into the situation as best we can.
We see it all the time in the clients we work with in terms of their content operations and strategy.
Sometimes the elephant enters the room, sits at the table, and is introduced in the first meeting, giving us the complete picture of the challenges at hand. Other times, and more commonly, it takes several stakeholder interviews, and maybe even a workshop before we see the pachyderm peaking its head around the corner, or in some cases, stampeding its way into the room … the client keeping mum all the while about the 4000-pound problem jumping up and down in the room.
And the elephants we are talking about are not the trivial tawdry of whether Avery from accounting is dating Pat from procurement. Or the more scandalous that the cafeteria has switched from made-from-scratch to baked-from-frozen cookies. No, the elephants we encounter in our content operations, and strategy engagements can ultimately significantly impact companies’ bottom line.
So in situations where pretty much everyone involved is aware of the elephant. And if people pretty much agree it is an elephant, why are teams so reticent to talk to the elephant in the room? We’ve found it typically boils down to one, or a combination, of these reasons:
1. I don’t know how to bring up or talk about the topic.
2. Fear of offending someone.
3. Uncertainty about the impact on themselves, the team, project, or person involved.
4. Avoidance of potential conflict.
Fear and the unknown are often connected – when there are serious concerns about a situation or colleague, we fear the risks and possible reactions associated with talking about it. The last thing we want to do is introduce or escalate conflict or break what might be a delicate balance in how a team constructs or related functions. Even with those very real and potentially disruptive concerns, you must ask yourself which is worse – the fear of what MIGHT happen or the incurring damage by doing nothing. We’ve seen both sides find that the teams that decide to address and remove the elephant from the room fairs better in the long run than those who choose to design and paint around it.
There is no set way to get the proverbial pachyderm out of the way, but we’ve guided clients and seen success come to those that:
1. Determine first that it is, actually, an elephant.
The only thing worse than raising a problem is raising an issue that isn’t there, thus creating one. Check in with a couple of colleagues to validate the concern before introducing it to the team or your leadership.
You’ve determined that there is something to address, so now …
2. Set a plan driven by positive intentions.
Never easy, potentially disruptive conversations should be well thought out and supported with a few if-then-what scenarios run-throughs. And be prepared to listen to everyone else’s point of view.
Even the best-laid plans can go sideways, so ….
3. Seek to understand and engage in a discussion based on facts.
It is much easier to discuss a SHARED problem than one that seems personal or one-sided. So try to focus on what has actually happened or is currently happening. Discuss the impact of what is happening and assume that others are behaving with positive intent. The goal is to understand what the problem is and its consequences and find a resolution. Centering on this can help reduce any defensiveness of those involved in the conversation.
Elephants are enormous, so …
4. Ask for help with the heavy lifting.
Elephants, just like issues, start of small and take some time to become big. It may be that you tried to herd the problem before to no avail. Or maybe the culture in your organization avoids conflict and change at all costs. When an elephant seems too big to tackle on your own or doesn’t want to budge when you address it, it can be helpful to engage someone from outside the team, or even the organization, to help. Those not directly involved in the issue or who have expertise in the problem area can more easily raise the tough questions and bring different points of view. And rightly or wrongly, consultants are often listened to more openly because they are neutral third parties with no hidden agenda. They can also bring a different perspective and help everyone feel they have had the opportunity to share their point of view and be heard.
In many cases, the fear of what people might say about the elephant in the room is largely misplaced. We should instead fear the lack of progress and roadblocks to success caused by not talking about it. Open lines of communication fuel better, more informed decision-making and enables growth. So, go ahead and talk about the elephant in the room – doing so will allow you to develop deeper insights into your situation, make better decisions, and find the colour that goes best with the elephant and success.