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.
Is 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 Part I," Point Lookout for November 23, 2011.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Breaking the Rules
- Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who
break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
- How to Avoid a Layoff: Your Situation
- These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for
positioning yourself in the organization to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: II
- When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually
exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic
- Cultural Indicators of Political Risk
- Because of fire risk, hiking in dry forests during dry seasons can be dangerous. In the forest, we stay
safe from fire if we attend to the indicators of fire risk. In the workplace, do you know the indicators
of political risk?
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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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.