TeamBuild February 2017: Name the elephants in the room

I bring to my work an instinct to be forthright and name “the elephant in the room,” that problem or risk that no one wants to discuss. Even with multiple “elephants,” I’ve found that it is more beneficial to surface the issues than ignore them. If identified and put in context, contentious issues can propel a group forward.

“Naming the elephants” serves multiple purposes. One, it allows everyone to see the range of perspectives, not just their own. Two, acknowledging problems can release pressure and reduce tension. Last, when I name a contentious issue, I discuss why it is presenting itself now. A conflict in a college department may be one that is roiling across campus, or on campuses across the country. A team with offices in three locations has communication challenges — understandably. A sense of context can reduce the sense of blame or frustration with the fact that the team is struggling.

One way I surface issues is to interview everyone on the team individually. I take notes but promise confidentiality. When the group meets, I present an overview of what I have heard, with neutral language in a Powerpoint, verbally annotated with quotes from individuals. (I am careful to present only quotes in which the speaker cannot be identified.) Sometimes the language I quote is strong. This is shocking but not surprising; it is difficult to hear but many in the room know others feel and talk like this.

Once we identify the elephants, I come back to them, note when we are stuck because of them, and work to make them familiar, understandable, and manageable. In the second meeting I once had with a team, someone asked, “What were the elephants that we identified?” So I kept a running list on a flip chart through that meeting and referred to them at the end of the meeting and in subsequent meetings

Courageous individuals can identify issues that are bedeviling a team without conducting interviews ahead of time. I’ve seen someone initiate a difficult conversation with, “I think the elephant in the room is X, and I think the reason we’re confronting this now is Y.” After that, others referred to this intervention with, “Well, with the elephant in the room being X, I think we need to do Z.” When one person names the elephant, it becomes easier for others to talk about the issue and, as importantly, to raise issues in the future.

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