Leader, Address the Elephant in the Room

By Ron EdmondsonJanuary 28, 2021 / ronedmondson.com

Sometimes, as the leader, you must address the elephant in the room. If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time leading well moving forward. 

The elephant is the issue/person/thing that is obvious to everyone, but no one has done anything about it yet. 

Years ago, I was serving on a team where there was a consistent idea killer. Whenever anyone on the team presented an idea, regardless of the idea’s merit, this person would shoot it down. He always saw the glass as half-empty and was negative about anything new.

It’s okay to have someone who asks questions to make things better. We actually should encourage these people, but this guy was a doomsayer in the room. He never saw any positive in anything – regardless of the conversation, so, for example, we would be brainstorming and he would kill the momentum. Just when everyone thought we had a good plan in place, he would poke more holes in it. He never had new ideas to improve things and simply didn’t like anyone else’s idea.

It wasn’t helpful and was, therefore, actually disruptive.

Yet, as annoying as it was, leadership allowed it to continue. Everyone talked about it outside of meetings. No one respected the idea killer. Our senior leader insisted even he had counseled with this person privately, yet it never seemed to improve.

This guy was the elephant in the room.

It led me to a conclusion I have selectively practiced in leadership:

Sometimes, as a leader, you have to address the “elephant in the room” – in the room.

  • Everyone knows it is there. (You can’t miss an elephant.)
  • It keeps being repeated. (You’ve handled it individually. Nothing has changed.)
  • It likely will keep getting worse if unaddressed. (At least that has been my experience.) 

At some point, the leader has to address the elephant. 

You can’t ignore an elephant in a room. Elephants take up a lot of valuable space.

With everyone in the room, leader, address the elephant.

You may have to call out the person causing the disruption in the presence of everyone else in the room.

Yes, it’s hard, uncomfortable, and, frankly, you don’t want to do it often. You should never address it until you have attempted to handle it privately, but it may be necessary to continue leading the team well.

If you don’t:

  • Everyone will assume this type performance is tolerated.
  • The negative actions will be copied by others.
  • Team dynamics will never be healthy.
  • Respect for the leader – with this issue and others – will diminish.

Leader, when you know in your gut it’s time to address the elephant!

You must, because the best excuses won’t hide an elephant. Plus, elephants don’t often leave the room on their own.

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