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 firsthant, and you've tried to confirm your suspicion with peers. They vigorously denied the possibility — too vigorously.
- 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.
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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.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.
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.