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

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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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