The Elephant in the Room


In the wild there are two types of elephant, the African and the Indian.  Likewise in Leadership Teams there are often two elephants that are poorly addressed – these are difficult issues and poor behaviour.

How often have you been in a leadership team meeting and you think that there is an issue that isn’t being discussed or is being avoided – and it’s the real issue?  How often do you leave a meeting thinking we skirted around a topic without getting to the crux of the issue?  When has some one behaved poorly, or always behaves poorly – and no-one calls them on it?  It sounds like there are a few elephants gathering at your table.

It is hard to call them out by name and deal with them.  It firstly it depends on how much you trust each other and how prepared the leader is to be vulnerable enough to lay it bare on the table.  Do you genuinely know each other well enough to leave the egos at the door and tackle the difficult issues?  Do you understand how each other really tick, how you respond to stress or what stresses you and them and how that effects the potential interaction?  For example, if the CEO doesn’t like surprises and likes to be prepared, then something from left field is going to potentially derail the meeting.  Or if someone likes to talk a lot, use emotions and go around and around an issue, it will be hard to get them to focus on a structured decision making process.  Moreover, do you hang out together, socialise and know what is going on in each other’s lives and genuinely care?

Having a basis of trust established enables the conversations to be broached.  A good tool is that if you suspect that there might be an underlying issue then ask at the start if there is something that needs to be discussed first before the agenda commences so that they aren’t distracted; or is there something that if we left the meeting today without discussing – would someone be disappointed.  Then comfortable to sit in silence for a while until someone speaks. Then put the identified issue in the parking lot to be addressed.  it is then for the chair to successfully mange the process of addressing the issue to a conclusion.  Or if it is a distraction ask how does it fit with the business plan or strategy?

We took an idea from a client and now have a plastic toy elephant on the table that enables a subtle and novel way to name the elephant.  It takes practice – just remember to play above the line and tackle the issue not the person.

But what if the elephant is someone’s behaviour – in that they don’t play well with others eg the toss their pen, make dismissive gestures, interject, speak over people, always right, always have the last word, need to win, avoids conflict, etc – you know the ones.  This is where a courageous conversation needs to be had with either a peer or your Boss.  I suggest bringing the conversation back to your core values or your expected leadership behaviours.  Or perhaps leverage some basic meeting rules or ‘rules of engagement’ – you will surprised at how effective it is to have an agreed set of operating principles at the start against which you can refer is someone is starting to misbehave or derail the meeting – call them on it.  It directly makes a statement of “we aren’t going to tolerate your sh!t anymore”.

But the reality is that some won’t change, as these behaviours have been developed and self-reinforced over time – for some they are still leveraging the exact behaviours that got them to this point in their career.  This is when you are likely going to need an independent person to help address and coach the individual.  A 360 is a fantastic tool to create self-awareness, so that are aware that they need to change and grow, and then prepared to take action and be held accountable.  And this is going to take some time – but it reaps huge rewards.

It takes courage to stand in front of a moody elephant, but as leaders we must have the mettle to give it a name and start addressing it.

Greg is a consultant at Advisory.Works

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