I am secretly thrilled when someone is courageous enough to “out” the massive elephant sitting smack in the middle of the room. I remember a specific leadership meeting when I worked for a large healthcare system. We had just received very low employee engagement scores on our annual survey specifically around questions that addressed the organization’s values. Senior leaders wanted to know what had caused such a precipitous dip.
The hundred or so leaders in the room sat quietly fidgeting and looking down at their hands until a strong voice rose from the back of the room saying “Okay, Let’s be clear. The reason that we have not focused on our values, is because we are rewarded only when we cut our costs: it’s all about budget!”
After a collective gasp and a long pause, the floodgates opened. What happened next was memorable because people began to candidly share the mixed messages they had received in ways they rarely did in the presence of senior leaders. In small groups, we brainstormed strategies of how to stay true to our values and keep costs down.
Surfacing hard conversations can feel unsafe, politically incorrect and maybe even like career suicide. “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” Mark Twain said, touting the virtue of silence.
But silence has its own high costs with:
• Gossip and triangulation (when we don’t speak directly to the person in question we may talk to 5-10 others!)
• Sabotage or “behind the back” antics creating turf wars
• Making the wrong decisions; tackling the wrong problems and wasting precious time, resources and stifling motivation
• The potential for personal and financial disasters
What do NASA, Enron, and WorldCom all have in common? Each experienced massive organizational disasters that could have been averted if it were not for a culture of silence. These disasters did not occur overnight and thousands of people colluded in the silence, ostensibly because sharing potential risks came with a fear of reprisals.
I have held the reputation of someone unafraid to “name the elephant” but have also been considered “blunt” by some. Recognizing the need for finesse in this potentially risky territory, I posed the following question to a group of top facilitators at a conference I attended last summer, “How do we skillfully surface the elephant in the room?” What emerged from our provocative conversation were the following six “meta”skills:
1. Listen and feel:
Hear the “rumble” under the silence. Become a listener and feeler with outstretched tentacles. Learn to “read the room” by noticing your own and others body language. Ask: What’s the energy in the room?” Use your own body as a gauge and notice what’s going on for you. Are you are bored, anxious, excited? Listen and feel the energy that is bubbling just below the surface.
2. Build trust
Safety has to be created. It is imperative that people not be “punished” for speaking their truth. People feel an understandable reluctance to speak out if it may lead to public humiliation or punishment. Leaders create fear and mistrust when controversial topics are ignored, when personal attacks are allowed to thrive and where posturing and interpersonal challenges are the norm. On the other hand, leaders build high trust cultures when they encourage respectful disagreement, encourage people to speak up, to question those in power, and provide space for vocal contrarians to air their views.
3. Timing is everything.
Some issues are simply not worth raising, or at least not at that moment. It is important to respect the timing and attention of the person you want to address. It may be fruitless to raise a tough issue when someone is dealing with an impending deadline. Talking about hard issues requires time and attention and when that is not available, it’s best to wait until people can focus.
4. Be selective what you surface
Take the time to ask, “for the sake of what am I bringing up this issue?” Is it so important that it needs to be addressed immediately? Don’t turn small differences of opinion into conflicts. Ask yourself before addressing a concern, especially publically, “Is this really critical to my work, to the organization, the customers or the organization’s reputation?” If not, perhaps you can let it be.
5. Listen with heart and curiosity
Hold space for people even with their aggression. If we “shoot the messenger” people clam up. When people are angry and upset, their communication can become a little messy. Learn to listen underneath their judgments for what they really want and what they really care about. This attitude creates a climate that supports disclosure and minimizes defensiveness.
6. Make the implicit, explicit
The following questions encourage people to surface the elephants in the room and can shift your culture to one of safety and trust.
• What are our undiscussables?
• What is the most important thing people are thinking but are not saying?
• What are we doing that contradicts what we are saying?
When people are allowed to wildly (but respectfully) disagree with each other, a culture of exciting innovation, deep trust and learning is created. These are qualities needed for any organization who wishes to remain relevant, retain top talent and succeed in a vastly ever changing marketplace. The “elephant in the room” is usually the most important thing to be talking about.