I always knew the elephant in the room means there is a real problem or issue here. Nobody is addressing it directly and everybody is tip toeing around it. One day I wanted to know and discovered that a lot of people had no idea. George, who knows a lot of these things, told me this:
White elephants were considered sacred in Siam and laws protected them from labor. Receiving a gift of a white elephant from the king was simultaneously both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the gift was a sign of the king’s favour, and a curse because the elephant had to be retained, could not be put to much practical use, and was expensive to maintain.
White elephants are symbols for things where the value is outweighed significantly by its upkeep. However, the value holder of the white elephant doesn’t realise the burden and it may be difficult to talk to him (or her for that matter) about it. There is the possibility it is being done on purpose. And there is only one way to find out and address it.
Talk about it
Dan Rockwell said recently “Courageously identify challenges, problems, and failures. “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him.” “ He knows the elephant well :). Tip-toeing about it and discussing items left and right only helps to built a fence around the elephant. He will not leaving by doing so. No, we only help to protect him. So it is important to have a courageous conversation. Be brave and grab the bull by the horns. Lolly Daskal has great advise how to do just that.
A courageous conversation can hurt. There is a reason it is a white elephant. At least one person has a vested interest in the elephant. It may be a pet project, it may be a promise, it may be a different set of values, or a specific objective that is at stake here. If you are the only seeing the value in this and everybody else is putting extra effort in to keep it going without agreeing with the value of the outcome, you own a white elephant. Talking you out of it takes an act of courage. And it will hurt you. Your pride gets the biggest hit. Your judgement the second.
As a leader you are often the one who engages in a courageous communication. You initiate it and you are in control. Receiving a courageous conversation from your boss, a colleague, a direct report or your partner puts a totally different spin on it.
- Invite communication
Do you have an “open door” policy and invite an open conversation? This is the most basic step. Without it you are not approachable. Everybody will feed the elephant but not happily. Team moral is a good indicator that something is not right.
How do you react when someone tells you that your spleen is costing the team 2 hours each week in extra work? Are you attentive, angry, ask for more information, or dismiss it simply. I think your reaction shows how you value feedback. We have monthly 1 on 1 meetings and use these to have such conversations. It’s part of the organisational culture which helps to foster this behaviour.
- Learn and Grow
The third level is emotional. If I’m being told my elephant is causing problems and I thought of it as the best idea since sliced bread, it’s a problem. My pride and judgement will get a dent. How could I have missed that? My response to myself is critical. As a leader I need to grow. An error like this is not a failure. It is an opportunity to learn. Acknowledging the mistake, correcting it and making sure the same doesn’t happen again is the personal learning point.
How do you react on the receiving end?