Elephant in the Room

Posted On: 05 October 2017

Elephant on table 2.jpg

In the wild there are two types of elephant, the African and the Indian, they can appear indistinguishable to the untrained eye. In Leadership Teams there are also often two elephants and although distinguishable they are often not openly identified and dealt with due to uncertainty over how to address them - these are difficult issues and poor behaviour.

Have you got an elephant in your room?

  • How often have you been in a leadership team meeting and you think that there is an issue that isn’t being discussed or is being avoided – and it’s the real issue? 
  • How often do you leave a meeting thinking a topic was skirted around without getting to the crux of the issue? 
  • When has someone behaved poorly, or always behaves poorly – and no-one calls them on it?

If you feel yourself nodding your head, then it sounds like there are a few elephants gathering at your table.

YOU NEED TO ESTABLISH TRUST to discuss difficult issues

It’s hard to call someone out by name and deal with them.

How much you trust each other and how prepared the leader is to be vulnerable enough to lay it bare on the table. Do you genuinely know each other well enough to leave the egos at the door and tackle the difficult issues? Do you understand how each other really tick, how you respond to stress or what stresses each of you and how does that affects the potential interaction? 

Having a basis of trust established enables the conversations to be broached. A good tool, if you suspect that there might be an underlying issue, is to ask at the start of a conversation/meeting:

  • If there is something that needs to be discussed before the agenda commences so that they aren’t distracted or
  • If we leave the meeting today without discussing a particular issue - would someone be disappointed.

Then sit comfortably in silence for a while until someone speaks.  Put this identified issue in the “parking lot” to be addressed.  It is then for the chair to successfully manage the process of addressing the issue to a conclusion. (Or if it is a distraction, ask how does it fit with the business plan or strategy?)

We have a plastic toy elephant on the table that enables a subtle and novel way to name the elephant in the room. It takes practice – just remember to play ‘above the line’ and tackle the issue not the person.

Tackling Poor Behaviour 

But what if the elephant is someone’s behaviour – in that they don’t play well with others? eg the toss their pen, make dismissive gestures, interject, speak over people, always right, always have the last word, need to win, avoids conflict, etc – you know the ones. This is where a courageous conversation needs to be had with either a peer or your boss. 

We suggest bringing the conversation back to your core values or your expected leadership behaviours. Or perhaps leverage some basic meeting rules or ‘rules of engagement’ – you will surprised at how effective it is to have an agreed set of operating principles at the start against which you can refer is someone is starting to misbehave or derail the meeting – call them on it. It directly makes a statement of “we aren’t going to tolerate this anymore”.

But the reality is that some won’t change, as these behaviours have been developed and self-reinforced over time – for some they are still leveraging the exact behaviours that got them to this point in their career. This is when you are likely to need an independent person to help address and coach the individual. Also, a 360 review is a fantastic tool to create self-awareness, so they know they need to change and grow, and will be expected to take action and be held accountable. Change will take some time – but it reaps huge rewards.

It takes courage to stand in front of a moody elephant, but as leaders we must have the mettle to give it a name and start addressing it.


This blog was written by Greg Allnutt, a Business Strategist for Advisory Works. 

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Topics: Establish trust, Company Culture, Recruitment