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.  Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II  Next Issue

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

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

Your comments are welcome

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

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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:

Benjamin FranklinPractice Positive Politics
Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. George C. Marshall and Gen. Dwight D. EisenhowerWhen You're the Least of the Best: II
Many professions have entry-level roles that combine education with practice. Although these "newbies" have unique opportunities to learn from veterans, the role's relatively low status sometimes conflicts with the self-image of the new practitioner. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
Steve McInnis, the Building Commissioner of the City of North Chicago, IllinoisHow to Stop Being Overworked: II
Although many of us are overloaded as a result of our own choices, some are overloaded by abusive supervisors. If you find yourself in that situation, what can you do?
A question markI Don't Understand: I
When someone makes a statement or offers an explanation that's unclear or ambiguous, there are risks associated with asking for clarification. The risks can seem so terrifying that we decide not to ask. What keeps us from seeking clarification?
A virtual interview underwayVirtual Interviews: I
The pandemic has made face-to-face job interviews less important. Although understanding the psychology of virtual interviews helps both interviewers and candidates, candidates would do well to use the virtual interview to demonstrate video presence.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.