Is There an Elephant in the Room?

3 minute read

The quality of communications inside a unit, department, or organization is a good acid test of the cultural health of any hierarchy. One way to assess this elusive ‘quality of communications’ is to determine how many elephants are in the room. What is it we (and ‘we’ can be any two or more people, by the way) need to talk about, but aren’t? Sometimes things left unsaid revolve around obviously difficult topics like trust, or the lack thereof; the desire for more clarity (typically sought by those in subordinate roles); or the desire for more support (this issue often flows both ways between manager/subordinate as well as between peers).

When it’s apparent there is indeed an elephant in the room, the questions I regularly ask my clients are:

  • What needs to be discussed?
  • With whom?
  • What are the reasons it hasn’t already been discussed?

The reasons it’s not yet been discussed can be several. The one we hear most often is, “I just haven’t had the time,” but to drive home the point, I’ll often nudge them with a wry observation: “If the conversation was how to divvy up your shared lotto winnings, I’ll bet it would’ve already happened.”

On rare occasions, the issue genuinely is a low priority, but the two big reasons the obvious conversation gets delayed are lack of safety (which we should point out can simultaneously be both the cause of and the elephant itself), and conflict avoidance.

I was on a call with a client this morning who was disappointed by their boss’s lack of communication. When I suggested they express their disappointment at that lack to their boss, they replied, “No way. That just wouldn’t be safe to do.”

The truth of the matter is, if we don’t feel safe having an honest, respectful conversation with our boss, we probably need to find a new boss.

And from the perspective of the boss, it’s our experience that the most frequently avoided conversation relates to a subordinate’s seeming lack of motivation, often characterized by a lacking attitude. Most organizations have people who are competent, but just don’t like the flavor of Kool-Aid the organization is serving. The longer this issue is avoided, the more detached and adrift the employee feels, which eventually can wreak all kinds of havoc within the team. And yet, these vital conversations are repeatedly postponed by conflict-avoidant managers, who are doing themselves—not to mention their likely disengaging subordinate—a disservice.

As we have said here before, if you’ve ever been in a position when you weren’t in agreement with the direction of your employer or team, or how the business was being run, whether tactically or philosophically, then you’ll know that it’s a pretty miserable position to be in. And we all know how being in that position can change the entirety of our lives even outside of work. For the sake of everyone involved, it’s worth the effort and discomfort to learn how to show those pachyderms the door.  

For this week: What conversations are you avoiding? Become willing to make a list and to tackle at least one a week. In so doing, you will improve the overall health of your team and organization.