Why executive leaders must talk about elephants

Andy kelly sundial consulting
Andy Kelly

I want to tell you why executive leaders must talk about elephants. With so many elephants in the room it’s a wonder anything can move forward. In this video blog post I’ll discuss the what, why and how so you can tackle unspoken issues using my 5 clear steps.

After dealing with this, you may find this post beneficial to really keep any resulting plan on the agenda: The Effects Of Team Accountability. (opens in a new tab for your convenience).

Why executive leaders must talk about elephants – script

What is the elephant in the room?

It’s that really uncomfortable subject that everyone is thinking about, but no-one is talking about. It’s the big thing we can all see, but it’s left unspoken. We call it ‘The Elephant’ – The Canadians ‘the Moose’ – some ‘The Gorilla’ – ‘the dogs not barking’ – but my all time favourites are from my friends in Brazil ‘the goat under the table’ i.e. you can smell it, but can’t see it!

Do you talk about the elephant in the room with your team?

You have to coax the goat out from under the table. High performing teams do that really well. Put the elephant right ON the table. They constructively move to root cause analysis and build a plan to go forward. You have to do this fast, as elephants grow quickly and turn into mammoths Рand these are much harder to hunt!

Ignoring these elephants are time consuming, it creates cycles, it removes trust from teams and it’s ineffective. It is tough to deal with.

A few examples can be:

  1. Two team members have had a conflict and are not talking anymore.
  2. Your boss has a brand new strategy – nobody believes in it and you all feel it’s going to be a disaster.
  3. There is a rumour of a pending merger or acquisition.
  4. Your largest customer is leaving for the competition

But, we all just carry on as normal as if nothing has happened! We kind of go into a Buzz Lightyear mode – we don’t talk about our feelings.

We avoid the conversation because we don’t want to stand out, we don’t want to lose power or influence. Because we don’t want to upset the equilibrium or ruin relationships. But you have to do it.

We always say at Sundial Consulting that you really want a teams bedrock to be trust. Phycological safety in a team that assumes good intent. It just makes it so much easier.

Here’s 5 steps to tackle the elephant in the room:

  1. It is good to just connect with some of your trusted colleagues before the meeting. Just to find out if it is definitely an elephant and if they agree with you and support you. You want a coalition of people with you in that meeting.
  2. You definitely need a plan of what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. If you come along like you are in charge of the conversation people will listen to you. If you turn up ill prepared, people will back off and not engage in the conversation.
  3. You need to decide what you are going to call it. Everybody in the room needs to have a consistent understanding of what the elephant is about and what you are thinking of doing.
  4. You need to think of engaging your emotional intelligence. There are going to be people on the room, some of which will feel more sensitive, some more emotional about this subject. You need to engage your empathy, compassion and care of others. Then you really need to keep the communication flowing, everybody needs to get their moment, a chance to share their views and their feelings about the subject.
  5. Then you need a plan! It is very disappointing if people go through that angst of talking about the elephant and then nothings happened and no decisions have been made. So this is really really important.

It can be tough and scary but it is never as bad as you think and there is normally a mutual sigh of relief when the issue has been raised.

Sometimes, you just need to signpost what you are going to do and show some vulnerability. ‘Hey, team there’s an elephant in the room. We need to talk about it. I’m not looking forward to it. I’ll find it really hard…’ And they throw you a bone.

Good luck! We would love to hear your stories of how you tackled the elephant in the room so please comment below!


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