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3 Strategies for Naming the Elephant

May 16, 2017

african-elephantIn the book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifitz, Alexander Grashow, and Martin Linsky (Harvard Business Review, 2009) identify five key characteristics of a healthy organization (p. 101). One of these, “The elephants in the room are named” is a challenge all of us have likely encountered on more than one occasion. While one may personally recognize the elephant in the room, it takes some skill to help others in the room to be willing to acknowledge the un-discuss-able reality out loud and put it on the table for a meaningful conversation.

Here are three “Ask” strategies that can be effective when it comes to making the elephant visible and discussion-able.

  1. Ask a question
    Arguably the preferred way of addressing the elephant in the room is to ask some leading questions so that others can recognize the untouchable topic by answering your question. Questions like “Is it possible…?” “Would there be an advantage to…?” “What would happen if…” can draw the elephant out of hiding and into full display and gives others permissions to address an issue/topic that seemed off-limits.

    Of course, asking a question could also simply draw a number of “No” responses, keeping the elephant hiding. If good questions, cannot assist people in discussing a taboo concern,…

  2. Ask for permission
    Asking the question allows others to name the elephant in the room. Asking for permission means you politely name the elephant yourself. It is courageous, yet sometimes necessary, especially in working with the risk averse members of a team. Simply asking, “May I suggest that the issue we are facing is actually…?” or “I wonder if one of the reasons we keep coming back to this problem is because…”

    This approach may be necessary when others do not see the elephant. They are willing to consider your suggestion, but the team members may not have seen it yet or as clearly as you. As soon as the elephant is named, people may be willing to address the topic. Of course, as with asking the question, the response to your ask for permission may also be a dismissive “No.” A dialogue could happen where the person explains why your suggested option is not a concern, but at least the taboo topic will be on the table. Then other team members can either agree with your suggestion or with an alternative. At the very least, the elephant has been  named.

  3. Ask for “Forgiveness”
    Although arguably the least constructive way to unveil the elephant, sometimes after having the same discussion with a team a few times, someone needs to just speak up in exasperation and say, “Or we could do the obvious and [name the elephant].”
    Admittedly, the immediate reaction will be stunned silence. You just stripped the elephant naked in front of everyone with seemingly no warning. Survive the awkward silence for a few seconds and then calmly explain what caused your strong words. It may be something like, “I am sorry if I surprised you with my frustration. I feel we’ve been dancing around this topic for 4-5 meetings and if we are going to move forward productively on any plan, I think we have to be willing to acknowledge that [elephant] is an issue/problem.”
    Again, some will interject, especially in the absence of any other voices, say, “Well, that seems to be quite the over-reaction” (or words to that effect).” Again, express the same sentiment above in a calm, minimally emotional statement emphasizing the issue needs to be addressed.

I am pretty sure I have used all of the above strategies at one time or another, each with varying degrees of success in terms of naming the elephant and discussing it further.

How about you? What strategies have you found effective in helping your team name the elephant?

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