Are there too many elephants in the room to hold open and honest leadership conversations?

Yesterday at Monwel was another fascinating Leadership Conversation which threw up (amongst other things) some really important insight into what was hindering open and honest conversations in the workplace.

One participant said that the greatest hindrance to open and honest discussions in the workplace is that “there are so many elephants in the room that you can’t actually get openness and honesty in”.

What a great suggestion. Just what are the elephants hindering open conversations? If we ignore them do they contribute to building more and more unspoken anxiety, resentment, fear and conflict?

It was expressed strongly that just some of the elephants were indeed fear and anxiety arising from:

  • a bullying culture and what may be the perceived impact of speaking openly,
  • possible or actual conflict
  • possible loss of promotion opportunities,
  • maybe losing one’s actual job, being the next one to be made redundant
  • concern about losing a contract or not getting a future contract,
  • who has the power and who has the power in that meeting
  • believing that your input may not being heard
  •  finding one’s own voice
  • concern about “letting fly” emotionally in an inappropriate way so that one’s own sense of self-esteem is damaged

Why does it matter?

As defined by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind “A conversation is a frank exchange of ideas and information with an implicit or explicit agenda.”

I have already argued that one of the most important things that leaders do is to have conversations with a purpose; effective conversations with inspirational leaders are direct, open, honest and caring and with a clear purpose.

Is it really possible to hold a “frank conversation” which is direct, open, honest and caring in a room full of unmentioned “elephants”? We had a resounding “no” to that question. So clearly it is essential that we all improve our leadership skills of dealing with the “elephants in the room”.

At our Leadership Cafe, the following ways of dealing with elephants came to the fore:

  • Throw in a mouse – the elephants will scatter and go (love this one, this is “leading beyond authority”)
  • Sometimes I believe it is important to just “aim and fire” i.e. explode the myth. However use this approach with good judgement please!
  • Important to deal with the elephants one at a time. You know the age old question “how do I eat an elephant?” and the response is “one bite at a time”. In this case the question is “How do I deal with a herd of elephants?” and of course the answer is “one at a time”.
  • Some elephants can definitely just be “parked” outside the room, ‘cos actually in the big scheme of things they don’t really matter, once they have been named and acknowledged.

What does this mean in real life leadership conversations?

The starting point seems to me that it is essential to pay attention to, discuss and agree the ground rules of the group (or 1-1) conversation. If we look to the principles of Action Learning a helpful framework for ground rules is

  • Responsibility for self i.e. everyone is responsible to help move the conversation forward constructively
  • Experience – led i.e. the topics (in this case, elephants), presented are real situations
  • Confidentiality – the only thing taken out of the room (conversation) is the learning and actions
  • “I” language is used (everyone “owns” their input e.g.” I feel angry if you say ‘blah, blah, blah’”
  • Process is addressed, as well as content i.e. how are we going to have this conversation and the group pay attention to feelings, relationships and feedback
  • Equality of opportunity to participate i.e. every voice has equal opportunity to contribute, to be heard and valued and to ensure this actually happens by using different ways of creating input (cf Krystyna Weinstein, Action Learning: A Practical Guide)
  1. Ground rules are a “mouse” – seen to be unimportant by many but make a huge difference when in place and referred to and are essential to creating a safe environment within which trust can grow.
  2. The “elephants in the room” must be named and acknowledged;  however it may well be best to do this one at a time and not try and deal with the full herd all at once, which would only overwhelm and raise anxiety.
  3. Having named and acknowledged a specific elephant, then the individuals or group agree to deal with it – one open, honest, direct and caring conversation that acknowledges and resolves that elephant. Then like a puff of smoke, that one has gone.
  4. Some elephants I believe you can let go, simply name them, and then “park them” outside the room so that they don’t interfere with the conversation e.g. addressing potential conflict of interests, make that a specific agenda item and bring them into the open so that everyone is aware and is not creating assumptions (i.e. more elephants) about where one or other individual is coming from and what their “hidden agenda” is.

Without doubt in my opinion, elephants in the room simply get larger and larger if they are ignored, until they block out trust, openness and honesty and instead foster fear, anxiety, irritation and more which is translated into what I call “bad behaviour” creating ever more conflict, undermining trust and in terms of a conversation undermine genuine progress on the matter in hand and leave participants de-motivated and in a frame of mind which says “told you so, nothing ever changes”!

Good leadership conversations happen once the elephants in the room have been disposed of, in the best kind of way for all involved. Inspirational leaders, who really engage and motivate their team or workforce, don’t hand over power to elephants. Instead, they notice the elephant creeping in to the room and bring it to the attention of everyone, so that it is dealt with and has no power to undermine open, honest, direct and caring conversations with a purpose.

Which elephants could you ensure get dealt with once and for all today?

Who do you know who as a leader is great at ensuring the elephants don’t become a herd so that the leadership conversations are open, honest, direct and caring? You have time to nominate them for a 2014 Leading Wales Award  Nominations close on March 14th.

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One Response to Are there too many elephants in the room to hold open and honest leadership conversations?

  1. Pingback: The “elephant in the room” that we need to banish | Reflections on Leading

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