Elephant in the Room

In this article, the author states that if there is an elephant in the room, he wants to address it. Often in our industry dominated by engineers with a preference for introversion, there is a tendency to avoid talking about difficult issues. But as he says,

“Knowing how to identify and constructively address an elephant in the room is a sixth sense of global leadership.”

So, here is his advice for attacking these difficult subjects:

  1. Be sure it is an elephant – Perceptions aren’t always reality, especially if the people involved come from a diversity of backgrounds. Before you bring up an uncomfortable topic with a larger group, check with a couple trusted individuals to see if they have the same perception.
  2. Name the elephant … but carefully – Directly telling a diverse team, “The problem is, none of you trust each other,” conflicts with the dominant values of most cultures. The majority of individuals across the world prioritize harmony and using a more deft approach to naming an elephant. This doesn’t mean avoiding the elephant. It’s using cultural intelligence to describe it. You might say, “I perceive that our different approaches for working on this project may be unintentionally eroding our trust in each other.” Or you could say, “If an outsider observed our team, what might they see?”
  3. Seek diverse descriptions of the elephant – Effectively addressing the elephant in the room requires understanding different views of it. The first person to share their perspective does not necessarily represent the view shared by others. But research repeatedly shows that the first perspective voiced in a group discussion has inordinately more power over the outcome than perspectives raised later.
  4. Zoom wider than the elephant – One of the most important strategies is to zoom wider than our polarizing differences to find a problem both sides care about. The “elephant” is rarely the point. It’s typically a symptom of something deeper and its presence is a distraction from something more important. Zooming wider than the elephant in the room doesn’t mean ignoring the elephant. It means rising above the immediate triggers and irritations to see the core of what matters to us together.

The strategies for effectively confronting an elephant in the room aren’t rocket science. As a matter of fact, they sound a lot like the IDS (Identify, discuss, solve) methodology advocated in Traction. But, I think putting it in the context of ‘the elephant in the room’ does help illustrate how to broach a topic that may be holding our teams back.


October 26, 2022