07 September 2005

The dead elephant in the middle of the room

Many times in the corporate world, you will find yourself facing the "dead elephant in the middle of the room."

This is the issue that everyone is aware of, but somehow nobody mentions. It could be emotionally charged; it could feel too big to confront; it could be that nobody is comfortable bringing it up. If you are a manager, it might very well be that you are the only one who doesn't see it.

Nevertheless it is huge. It fills the room and it stinks to high heaven: it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get anything meaningful accomplished as long as it is there.

How do you know there's an elephant in the room? You might see the following symptoms:
- You catch people exchanging meaningful glances and you don't know why.
- People aren't responding to your thoughts or statements in the way you expected them to.
- You note awkward or uncomfortable silences and you don't know why.

How do you get the elephant out of the room so you can move on with business? Not by avoiding it, that's for sure. You need to shine a spotlight on it.

First you have to understand what it is. The best way to get this kind of information is by working on your listening and questioning skills. You may be able to do it in a meeting, but it may take more investigation. Try talking to people outside the office and having casual conversations. In a one-on-one situation, especially outside the work environment, people often feel more comfortable raising difficult or emotionally charged issues.

If they feel that you are listening and that you truly care, you probably won't have to ask the question at all; chances are that they want to bring it up. So don't probe. If you have to ask questions keep them general, like "how's work treating you these days?" If there's an elephant lying around and people feel comfortable with you, they will tell you about it.

If you are not a manager you can still bring it to your boss's attention in a similar way: get your manager off-site or in a comfortable environment, perhaps at lunch or over a cup of coffee, and try to bring up the subject as delicately as you can. Listening and questioning skills can be quite helpful here as well.

Once you are aware of the elephant, you'll need to raise the issue in a public forum. Here are a few thoughts about how to shine a spotlight on a dead elephant:
1) Broach the subject. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, you can't move ahead without bringing it up. At the beginning of a meeting, or towards the end, are usually the most opportune times. You may want to introduce it in a general way. Don't mention anyone by name, even though you may have discussed it with them. Just say, "a number of you have mentioned to me..." or "some of you might be wondering about..."
2) Call it like it is. You don't get any points for euphemisms or vague language. Describe the dead elephant in all its stinky ugliness.
3) Describe the emotions that surround the elephant. Don't be shy about sharing your personal emotions related to the issue. Seeing you talk about feelings will make others comfortable to do the same.
4) Ask people how they feel about it. Usually people are dying to discuss it and are happy to discuss it once the issue is raised. If people seem reticent, encourage them to talk. Whoever the first person to speak is, and whatever they say, listen carefully and show them that you understand. You don't have to agree, but letting the person fully air their views will serve to encourage others.
5) Schedule this kind of meeting later in the day, when people have a tendency to be more agreeable.
6) Follow up. This is a basic rule of management that is -- all too often -- forgotten or ignored. If you make a commitment or promise to address an issue, follow up and make sure it gets done. If you don't, you risk losing credibility with your team.

As always, please share your comments on the usefulness of these ideas.

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Anonymous said...

I can see where the advice is useful, but all too often, managers and their bosses don't care what you think, and their boss certainly doesn't care, either.

Approaching your boss outside of the work atmosphere can be helpful, but all too often, I've seen any broaching of the subject by an employee lead to their "disappearance" within a day or two. And that's probably why there's a dead elephant in the room so often; because employees know if they speak up they are putting themselves in jeopardy.

Until management and HR change to start viewing employees as people with skills and knowledge, rather than automatons that can easily be replaced with another, the communication gap will always be there. Bad managers are what cause people to leave companies, and upper management still hasn't realized they have mostly bad managers.

Dennis Arter said...

We have this same problem within the American Society for Quality (ASQ). A few years ago, when I was on the Board of Directors, we actually had a process for addressing these issues. (We called them a "Dead Moose," but the concept was the same.)

After asking each Board member to write down one or two dead ones, we would choose three or four to work on. The Board would break into smaller teams, each assigned a Dead Moose. The team would try to a)capture the statement of the problem, b)state the existing conditions, c)state the changes necessary to make it go away, and d)identify a small number of action steps to take between Board meetings.

When we met again, four months later, the original sub-teams would form up, discuss any progress, then report out to the rest of the Board members.

While I don't think we were able to "solve" any of these problems, at least we started talking about them. This was never done before.

Unfortunately, the process described above no longer continues. I guess it was just too hard for volunteer member leaders to solve these huge problems. Too bad, because we continue to have the stinkin' critters!