Boundless Leadership: There's an elephant in the room - what now?

Every once in a while an elephant shows up. You know, the thing that is blooming obvious, but no one wants to talk about.

Like the fact that Uncle Fred drinks way too much and smells of urine. Or Susan spends more time socialising on Facebook than she does doing the accounts. Or the boss’s right-hand man – the ‘Golden Boy’ – has tantrums that keep everyone cowering behind their desks and taking really, really long lunches – out.

What do you do? If you say something, then what started as something uncomfortable may become a Major Issue. If you pipe up about smelly Uncle Fred, then the family is going to have to deal with alcoholism. If you point out Susan is wasting company time, you may become the tattle-tale. If you complain to the boss about Golden Boy’s tantrums, then maybe you’ll get the sack.

Our fears of creating even more uncomfortable feelings keep us paralysed.

But the longer we put up with things that make us uncomfortable, the longer we sacrifice our integrity and sense of peace.

So how do we deal with such an elephant?

The first thing we do is ask, ‘Is it worth saying anything?’, and ‘Will I suffer if I speak up?’ Many will retreat from doing anything at this point with the excuse, ‘It’s none of my business.’

But that’s not what leaders do. We don’t need a title or a job role to be a leader – we just need integrity, vision, and a modicum of courage. That’s you.

How leaders like you handle elephants:

1. We ask:

‘What’s at stake here – for me, for them, for the organisation?’

‘Are my values being compromised here?’

‘What’s best for the other person, in the long run?’

Often the answers lead to action: Uncle Fred will likely drink himself to death and drag the family through hell after him; Susan’s slack work ethic will dampen the spirit in the business, and the boss’s Golden Boy will drive employees out the door. There’s more at stake than just feeling uncomfortable.

2. We rally support one on one. This is likely a tough conversation to initiate. Guilt, shame, and losing face are strong emotions that no one likes to play with. Talking to others in the group or family will help break the ice about a delicate and icky topic.

3. We take a deep breath and talk to the person with the Elephant problem. With deep love and compassion, we start with questions. ‘Do you realise how much you drink Uncle Fred?’ ‘Susan – do you need more challenging work?’ ‘Golden Boy – why are you such a turd?’ (Just kidding!) ‘Golden Boy (use real name of course) is everything ok? Your stress levels seem high.’

From here we can get the other person to talk and open up. Bad behaviour is usually a symptom of a deeper problem. That, or they have no sense of how they are offending.

4. If it’s a group issue, don’t just drop the feedback in the middle of a meeting without warning – you’ll be splashing elephant dung around the room. I’ve done this before – in frustration I’ve blurted out what I think is the obvious issue only to have my words land with a thud and an awful splatter.

People do not respond well to issues that bring up shame and embarrassment without fair preparation. We need to create a safe space to share – complete with ground rules and fair warning to the group that we will be discussing ‘performance issues’ or ‘work culture’. Creating safety in a group takes repeated positive experiences. The leader needs to model courage and vulnerability. Above all, we need to address elephants with compassion and care.

Before long, and with practice, you’ll find this easier and easier. And those Elephants? They’ll become endangered species.

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