Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 23;   June 9, 2010: Stalking the Elephant in the Room: I

Stalking the Elephant in the Room: I

by

The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking, and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
An elephant family drinking, Samburu National Reserve Kenya

An elephant family drinking, Samburu National Reserve Kenya. Elephants — the real ones, that is — live in family groups consisting of (usually related) females and their juvenile and adolescent offspring. When males reach the age of 12-17, they depart for a relatively solitary life, though some bachelors do hang together for periods of time.

Metaphorical elephants also travel in families. An organization that can tolerate one elephant will often find ways to tolerate several at once, and sometimes those elephants are related, in that they tend to group around related issues. This is actually a good thing, because it means that if a group can resolve one of its elephants, it might have just what it needs to resolve others. Photo courtesy Richard Muller.

The elephant in the room is the unstated, unaddressed issue that everyone tiptoes around. A healthy team or group doesn't let elephants wander around for long, because even a baby elephant takes up too much space, and consumes too much of the team's resources. And like real elephants, the older they get, the more expensive is their upkeep.

If we suspect the presence of elephants, we want to hunt them down, and either terminate them or shoo them away, but we must track them first. Here's Part I of a collection of indicators that elephants might be lurking about. This part emphasizes personal interactions and behavior.

You're beyond careful — you're guarded
You take care with what you say and how you say it, but sometimes the care required is so burdensome that entire subjects are off limits.
Important topics are discussible with only a limited set of confidants
You can discuss certain topics with trusted confidants, but with certain others, you can never discuss them — especially those with power.
Keeping silent
In meetings, real or virtual, you keep silent about some topics, or you see someone else keep silent about something you know they know about.
You (or someone else) has asked a sympathetic leader for a private chat
You or someone you know has confided in a sympathetic leader or manager about goings-on you can't discuss with the appropriate manager. The need to seek assistance elsewhere is evidence that something can't be discussed in the appropriate venue.
You've been told directly to stop talking about something
Your boss or a peer has advised you to stop raising a specific issue, "for your own good." Probably you aren't the first person to have received such advice. This advice can be a form of elephant-hiding thicket maintenance.
Too-vigorous elephant denial
You suspect the presence of an elepIf we suspect the presence of
elephants, we want to hunt
them down, but we must
track them first
hant, and you've tried to confirm your suspicion with peers. They vigorously denied the possibility — too vigorously.
Eye-locking
A, B, C, and possibly others, are in conversation. A speaks, and the eyes of B and C lock together, without a word spoken. B and C dare not speak openly, but they feel the need to communicate, by eye, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Sudden skidding stops or swerves
You're engaged in conversation with another or others, talking quietly together about one elephant or another, when someone passes by or enters the room. Suddenly, halting possibly in mid-word, the speaker makes a quick shift to an innocent topic, giving the passerby the impression that the conversation was about that new topic. Your partners in conversation give no visible sign of recognizing the non sequitur.

In Part II, we'll examine some organizational indicators of elephants in the room. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II  Next Issue

For a discussion of the connection between "the elephant in the room" and confirmation bias, see "Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I," Point Lookout for November 23, 2011.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenSguHxxNQaTNrirCMner@ChacYSVwAQeEIBdkTukFoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Polonius's Charge to Laertes, color wood engraving by Bernard Brussel-Smith (1914-1989)A Critique of Criticism: I
Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
The U.S. Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, ConnecticutConfronting the Workplace Bully: I
When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
A scene from the Orphan Girl Theatre's production of Antigone at the Butte Center for the Performing ArtsStalking the Elephant in the Room: II
When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
Red Ball Express troops stack "jerry cans" used to transport gasoline to front-line units during World War II.Inappropriate Levels of Regard
The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
Elia Kazan, award winning film directorOn Snitching at Work: I
Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work. Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenirOPZpCFfLMGZtduner@ChacdwMGGdqCuGCkeORooCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.