Definition: Elephant in the Room [De-Ny-Al]
An obvious major problem or uncomfortable situation that people avoid discussing or acknowledging.
This is one of my favorite figurative expressions because it happens far more than anyone wants to admit. People see problems and rarely speak up. Why is that? I believe it is because they find themselves in a group that lacks psychological safety. Harvard Professor Amy Edmundson defines psychological safety as, "A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking" (Lebowitz, 2015). In layman’s terms, people don’t speak up in fear of how others may respond to their viewpoint. Teams that have a climate of curiosity, accountability, and openness are those that excel.
I recently had an “elephant in the room” experience as a new member of a team. I was brought on to the team as a fresh new perspective. After feeling out the situation and sitting through several comments, I kindly chimed in saying, “Is it just me or does anyone else see that we are merely putting bandaids on the problem, not actually solving it? There is a gigantic elephant in the room that no one has yet to bring up.” Initially the room went quiet, then suddenly a second, third, fourth and fifth voice said, “I had been asking myself the same question. I meant to say something about that. I too agree with that.” Suddenly, the conversation took a turn in a constructive direction and all it took was someone willing to be the first to speak up.
Now don’t get me wrong, not everyone will agree with the person that points out the “elephant” because not all teams actually want to see it. In this situation many of the team members agreed with me, but there were team members that later pulled me aside saying, “It wasn’t your place to speak up. This is not the protocol or how we do it. You’re opening a ‘can of worms’”. My response was then, “Good, let's open it. It is long overdue. I offer a new perspective, and that is exactly what I plan to deliver.”
Many people view conflict or the figurative can of worms as a bad thing, however, conflict when done correctly is often quite healthy. When teams don’t disagree with each other, it means they are not laying all their cards on the table. It is likely team members aren’t wholeheartedly sharing their thoughts and opinions. Though conflict can be uncomfortable, it often leads to the greatest solutions.
My challenge for you this week is muster up the courage to call out the elephant in the room when you see it. Often, it only takes one voice to start the conversation. If you have already identified your “elephant” and need help strategizing an approach, I want to chat with you. Together we can take the first steps to change. Let’s Chat
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Lebowitz, S. (2015). Google considers this to be the most critical trait of successful teams. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/amy-edmondson-on-psychological-safety-2015-11