Do Elephants Roam the Halls of Your Organization?

Posted: March 29, 2011 in Organization Culture
Tags: , ,

The “elephant in the room” is a common expression used in organizations for an obvious issue that is being ignored and going unaddressed. The reference to elephant suggests that the issue would normally be impossible to overlook.  Some people even add the color pink to emphasize its obviousness. Those who pretend that the elephant is not there tend to deal with smaller or less relevant issues.  So the question is why. Note: Some people mistakenly use the expression “white elephant;” it has a totally different meaning.

There are number of potential reasons. One is that the issue is so large, overwhelming, or complicated, that no one wants to try to deal with it.  Or, the problem may be associated with bad news, and few people want to be the bearer. Bad news is associated with negative emotions, and we know that negative emotions are associated with the messenger, even if not consciously.

That’s why sayings like “don’t kill the messenger,” “don’t stir the pot,” and “don’t be a trouble maker” have been around for so long.  This poster contains one of my favorites – it’s an old Moroccan saying.

So how do you deal with an elephant in the room? I would love to say I have the perfect answer. Actually I would like to say I have a good answer. Unfortunately, organizations and the environments in which they exist are so complex that it is difficult for me to provide any answer in which I would have great confidence.

The basic approach however is 1) name/acknowledge; 2) address/confront, and 3) solve/overcome.

Even after calling attention to an issue, there is no guarantee that it will be addressed, let alone solved, especially if it’s a complex issue with no easy answer.  There’s a reason it became an elephant in the first place. At least by talking about it, you have taken the first step –  better you than the elephant.

Incite: What elephants exist in your organization? Is it okay, even encouraged to talk about them?  If not, what can you do to make it okay?  What method do you use to address them?

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