There is “An Elephant in the Room” (1) and How to Deal with it Elegantly.

There is “an Elephant in the Room” and How to Deal with it

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, U.S. economist, “The Age of Uncertainty”

Susan has just been promoted to the position of Manager of a group of health-care professionals over another person who has similar qualifications and experience. Until Susan’s promotion, she was a member of the team and worked reasonably well with everyone.  Since her promotion, she has encountered a range of situations (elephants) that she is reluctant to discuss or resolve. This might be due to her inexperience or lack of leadership training or possibly she has reached her level of incompetence (the Peter Principle states that people rise to their level of incompetence: A person might be a great salesman but a terrible Area Manager!).

As an example, Yesterday, she arrived at work to discover that one employee is arriving half an hour later and leaving half an hour early EVERY DAY. This is known by everyone in the department. When she told a companion of this employee to start doing the work of the absent person, the companion told her that she was not prepared to do the work of the missing person every day and that as Susan was the Manager, it was her job to resolve the situation. Susan’s reply was “I can’t do that because she will get offended and take unlimited sick leave.” so the problem remains unresolved. This is an example of an Elephant which affects everyone in the group.

This is an example of what is known as having “An Elephant in the Room”. This is the term used to describe a situation, question, problem, or controversial issue that most, or all, of the people involved know about but do not want to discuss for fear of the potential consequences so they prefer to ignore it and hope that it will disappear.

However, The fact that someone does not like something does not change the reality of the situation. And an “An Elephant in the Room” should be dealt with as soon as it appears.

Effects of NOT talking about the Elephant.
1.    If you don’t deal with the Elephant head-on you are pretending it isn’t in the room. This is unrealistic and unproductive and reflects badly on the Manager.
2.     If not dealt with, it grows bigger, stronger more destuctiveand the manager appears weak, ineffective and lacking in leadership skills.
3.     It dismotivates the rest of group so productive and meaningful contributions are reduced.
4.     It is often reponsible for multiplying hidden suspicions, whispered conversations, rumours, gossip,  frustration and the possible perception of favouritism within the team / organization. It also reflects directly and indirectly on other decisions made by the manager

Effects of talking openly about the Elephant.
1.     Shows the Manager is sensitive to what is happening in his/her department.
2.    Shows that they are in control of the situation & demonstrates their ability to resolve the problem with the elephant without fear thereby displaying their leadership & communication skills.
3.     Reduces stress / worries for others members of the team.
4.     Allows for a resolution of the situation rapidly.
5.     Initially, people might feel bad/worried in the short-term for discussing it, but they will grow out of it rapidly and usually participate actively in finding the solution.
6.     Creates a positive precedent for talking openly about other possible / future Elephants.

How to talk about it: Preparation
1.     Know EXACTLY what the Elephant in the room is.
2.     Understand how it affects the others in the room: professionally & emotionally.
3.     Be the person to raise the topic.
4.     Plan in advance what you’re going to say & how.
5.    Prepare a range of different alternatives ( a minimum of three) to resolve the problem with the drawbacks and benefits  of each one.
6.    Speak ONLY for yourself. Unless you are a mind reader you CAN NOT know what the others are thinking.

Step 1: Identify and Name It.
–     When you identify the elephant and give it a name it stops becoming problematic, intimidating & controlling,  because it is now out in the open and people are able to openly discuss it, it becomes easier to resolve. So, get or give details of the problem or issue; how long it has existed; who specifically is involved and exactly what the consequences are. If you have been using a “Critical Incidence log” (LINK).

Step 2: Consult the Group.
–     Ask members of the team to propose possible solutions BEFORE you outline your ideas. Start with the younger / newer members of the group as they frequently reject opposing an older/more experienced colleague. Consultation is ALWAYS better than imposition!

Step 3: Reach Agreement.
–     Agree the next steps to be taken: Who will do what, when, how, etc., and ensure that the people involved agree and are committed to doing what they have agreed! Always check that the have done what they agreed to do!

Step 4: Feedback.
–     Arrange for feedback from the other people in the team or who are affected by this problem & solution.

Step 5: Help the Group Envision a Better Future.
–     The manager should always express confidence that the agreed plan will be successful and that the Elephant is now tamed.

Step 6: Reward Success and Inform the Group about the Consequences of Failure.
–    The team need to know the benefits of a successful solution and the consequences of failure. Remember the “WIIFM” concept: “What Is In It For Me”

Step 7: Thank the group
– Thank everyone for bringing up this “Elephant” and let them know that it is important that “Elephants” are dealt with as soon as they arrive. If the team know that the manager won´t shoot the messenger, they will be more willing to speak up.

To confront or not to confront?
There are times when the elephant is present in a group situation and, at other times, it might be with an individual person. Each of these requires a different approach.
When working with a group, IF the Elephant affects the whole group, it is better to deal with in a special meeting.
If the Elephant is (or with) an individual, it is usually better do deal with it personally in a one-to-one meeting behind closed doors and away from inquisitive ears!

Elephants exist  everywhere: in business & outside.  If you’re with a customer and your organization has had problems which have appeared in the newspapers, don’t pretend it didn’t happen – admit it and move on.  Most people will Google you & your organizations before meetings and will know what is happening. Be up front about it.

Please feel free to visit our bilingual (English & Spanish) web page:


(c) Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., April, 2012.


About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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