Leadership Skills of Dealing with the Elephant

By Greg Martin

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Have you ever been in a business meeting, event, or even at home, and there was this issue nobody wanted to discuss or bring up?

This is a situation where solid leadership skills are important.

If you were a junior in the company or the youngest in the family, it may have felt like it was not in your best interest to bring the elephant to the forefront. I have experienced the “elephant on the table syndrome” in both my professional and personal life.

The Obvious Issue

According to Wikipedia, the term refers to a question, problem, solution, or controversial issue that is obvious but is ignored by a group of people, generally because it causes embarrassment or is taboo.

The idiom can imply a value judgment that the issue ought to be discussed openly, or it can simply be an acknowledgment that the issue is there and not going to go away by itself.

I would like to point out a few reasons why we don’t invite the elephant to the table for an honest, factual discussion.

1. Fear of Being Wrong

If you bring out this perceived problem, and you’re the only one who may feel that way, others may look at you as the problem. This is particularly true if you have a boss who is not very receptive to change or does not want to hear bad news.

2. Fear of Hurting Our Colleague’s or Family Members’ Feelings

Therefore, we continue to ignore the problem. We ignore the problems until we are put in a position “usually because of some negative event” to address the matter in private. In some cases, the elephant was ignored for so long that it made it into the public eye. Sound familiar?

3. Fear of Being Known as a Bad Team Player

In some cases, this could lead to being ostracized or denied privileges, services, and much-needed support from within the organization or family structure.

How Will You Deal With the Elephant?

This is a hard question, and sometimes the answer is not easy. A great deal depends on the circumstances, the support you have, or if the relationship is in good standing. If the elephant is immoral or illegal, it will hinder your own personal morals and values.

You may even have to weigh if you want to invite legal problems for someone else’s behavior. Your own values will drive your decision on what you think should be done.

As a leader, you should strive to build an organizational culture in which the elephant is discussed. The staff knows that if you’re the cause of the frustration due to poor behavior, lack of commitment, or dishonesty, it will be openly discussed either publicly or behind closed doors. They must know and understand there will be “no thin skin allowed.” Most importantly, this also applies to leaders when applying this type of open communication.

Leaders must be open to honest feedback and bad news or risk being seen as a hypocrite.

Acknowledge the Elephant

When I have known there was an elephant in the room, either by my own feelings or the matter was bought up by another staff member, it would be addressed at the appropriate place and time. Usually, this would be at monthly team meetings if the issue could wait that long.

For several years, I have had a white stuffed elephant that someone gave to me as a Christmas gag gift. Prior to our meetings starting, I would place the white elephant in the middle of the table and state, “All white elephants will be discussed and resolved before the meeting is over.” This became the expectation.

Get Comfortable With the Elephant

At first, we had to develop some group norms to avoid distorting the real issues or feelings of being attacked. We had to reassure them that if they had bad news or shared brutal facts, that person would not need to fear being singled out.

Starting out, it took us some time to get comfortable addressing the elephant, but that time allowed for trust to be established among the team and for my direct reports to build trust with me.

Resolving Conflict

This tactic has worked out very well for us. I no longer bring it to every meeting because issues are being addressed between stakeholders before the meetings (which saves time), or the concerns are bought out to the forefront if needed at the meeting.

The longer you ignore an issue, the worse it becomes. Then resolving conflict becomes much harder. It will affect organizational morale and cause businesses to lose top performers. Address problems now, and you’ll be glad that you did.

I still have that white elephant; quite frankly, it has been one of my best Christmas gifts ever.

How Have You Handled White Elephants?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Greg Martin
Greg Martin
Greg works for Sedgwick County Department of Corrections and owns Martin Leadership & Management Development. He is a U.S. Army veteran & holds a MS in Leadership and Management from Friends University.
  • Tim Cummuta says:

    Great post Greg. One thing that comes to mind also as a cause for not discussing the elephant in the room is fear of being accused of not being politically correct.

  • Ron Whitaker says:

    I like your idea of having a stuffed elephant on the conference room table. Great strategy for making the concept more tangible.

    Thanks for the tip.

  • Warren Norton says:

    Greg, I love this article. Simple and elegant.

  • Linda Williams says:

    Great look at one of the “animals” in the “Zoo” of business allegories. Love the stuffed elephant idea. I may use this in one of my Team Building training classes. Thanks.

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