Originally Published October 29, 2014
In virtually any leadership team, no matter how high functioning, there will be times when the group is hesitant to bring up a question or concern. Perhaps it is because the topic is something about which the leader is passionate, or really committed to making happen. Maybe they feel like a decision has already been made, or the organization is “too far down the road” to change course, or that sharing a concern will undermine a relationship they have with someone else on the team. Regardless of the cause, an attuned leader may sense the caution in the room, but not be able to put a finger on the source of the unease. It is times like these that a team needs someone who is willing to “name the elephant in the room.”
I am blessed to have a member of my leadership team who willingly takes on this role. She is rarely the first one to speak up, but when she senses people are dancing around something that is weighing on them, she will either name the issue if she knows what it is, or point out that she senses some hesitancy and asks about it. She is able to do this in a supportive, non-confrontational way that makes it feel safe for people to speak their mind. (Not that speaking their mind is usually a problem with my team, but you catch my drift.) Her simple acknowledgement or inquiry has the effect of almost instantly making the conversation more “real”. You can almost feel the room take a deep breath because questions or concerns can now be openly discussed. At times, with additional information, the concerns are allayed. Other times, we tweak the direction or change course all together based on the conversation. In virtually every case though, we all leave the meeting feeling better about it. There is no need to have a “meeting after the meeting” because we addressed the concerns where they should be addressed — amongst the entire team.
If you don’t have someone on your team who naturally assumes this role, why not assign the task of naming the elephant in the room? If it has been assigned to someone, there won’t be the hesitancy of speaking out of turn … they are simply doing what you asked them to do. The effect is the same whether the elephant namer is a voluntary or assigned role. You as the leader have an added layer of protection against unnamed undercurrents that could ultimately undermine your efforts.
One note of caution … This strategy only works if the leader is willing to hear and respond to feedback, even when that feedback messes with well-laid plans. Elephants only come out to play when it feels safe to do so. And if an elephant gets shot down in an embarrassing or derogatory way, don’t expect other ones to show up at future meetings. They’ll instead decide to dance around amongst small groups after the meeting.
In today’s complex, fast-paced, circus of a world, it takes everyone’s best thinking to achieve the optimum outcome. And sometimes, you can only get to that best thinking by seeing, and naming, the elephant in the room.