Signs There Might Be an Elephant in the Room
When I first started my company, a manufacturing client hired me to do a workshop with their senior leadership team about receiving the information they’d gotten in their 360-degree feedback reports. The Human Resources specialist who hired me said, “I think there’s an opportunity for us to strengthen trust, what can we do?”
Since I think it’s always important to be upfront about setting realistic expectations, I explained we weren’t going to be able to do a full 180 in a three-hour morning workshop. Still, though, I said we could certainly work on making sure the team had some of the right tools to think differently about their work relationships and gain an understanding of how to create an environment of psychological safety.
Why is psychological safety so important?
Research shows that one of the things most high-performing teams have in common is a high level of psychological safety—something the giants have studied in great depth, including Google, which identified it as one of five factors of team success. It looks like this: in a psychologically safe environment, every member of a team can show up as themselves, take risks, make mistakes, ask for help, and even fail, while feeling valued. Creating an environment like this is vital to the success and health of an organization and is a strong step on the path to building trust.
After we explored the idea of psychological safety, I asked what I thought was a benign question “What are some things you feel this team does well to create a psychologically safe environment?
*Crickets.* There were twenty people on this team, but nobody said anything. I caught a few people side-eyeing each other, but otherwise, everyone looked away.
When I work with a group, and no one answers a question, it could mean a number of things. It may mean they don’t feel safe giving an answer, they don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of everyone, they don’t understand the question, or it could be about something else entirely.
I took note of that silence and cleared up the possibility that they didn’t understand the question by making sure we were working from a shared understanding of psychological safety. But I suspected the elephant would rear her head soon. When we took our first break, I caught a glimpse of a long gray trunk.
One of the team members sidled up to me and quietly said, “Yeah, it was interesting when you were talking about psychological safety. I think we struggle with that. I don’t think that we have psychological safety.”
When that team member left and I was about to leave the room, another person came up to me and said, “That’s interesting. When you asked the question about psychological safety, and you didn’t get a response—what does that mean? Does that mean we don’t have psychological safety?”
I flipped the question back to her.
“Well, I don’t know because I don’t know your team,” I said. “So, I think the important question is, what did that mean to you?”
“What we don’t have is psychological safety.”
As everyone was coming back from break, a third person, a man who had not overheard either of these conversations came over and said, “That was really interesting when nobody responded. I wasn’t surprised.”
The woman sitting next to me joined in, nodding in agreement.
We definitely had an elephant in the room, and when we suspect an elephant, we have a choice: to free or to feed our elephant.
My desire for comfort needed to be set aside for the team’s need for my courage. I quickly asked my HR partner whether we should move forward with the workshop as planned or take a learning detour to get curious about the situation. She agreed that we should address the elephant.
As everyone returned from break and settled in, I said, “I want to share an observation. When I asked about psychological safety, there was silence, which made me wonder if there was some depth to the situation. Then, over the break, I heard from a few people who mentioned that they weren’t surprised by the lack of candor. I’m curious, as you hear me share this observation, what comes up for you?”
At first, it was quiet again, but I held steady and waited. Eventually, people started to share in ways they hadn’t through the first section of the workshop. They really opened up, and it turned into a beautiful conversation.
We explored how the founder had passed away two years prior. Some of the people on the team knew him, but many didn’t. Team members who hadn’t been with the company long struggled with the idea of holding up the founder’s legacy when they didn’t know who he was. What we uncovered is that a large portion of the team felt uncertain about their role in the organization, and by acknowledging this elephant, we were able to open up space for a powerful and constructive conversation.
Before the end of our workshop, we debriefed on what allowed us to have that open conversation so we could create a list of specific practices the team could use to address elephants in the future. We’ll discuss ways to talk about the elephant in chapter 4 but I wanted to share what they identified as practices that worked for them:
• Explore the topic without the need for a solution.
• Allow time to talk about the team and not just about tasks.
• Have the courage to ask and receive hard questions.
• See the bigger picture.
• Make sure everyone is heard.
Footprints and Broken Branches
The elephant in the room can wreak havoc while everyone does their best to look away. Unlike an elephant you’d spot on safari, relationship elephants don’t leave a physical trail of footprints and broken branches, but they do leave a psychological trail. The good news is there are solid clues we can use to track and expose these elephants.
• People become quiet.
• Team members exchange knowing glances (or, alternatively, eye contact ceases and everyone seems suddenly interested in their notes).
• Someone poses a question, but nobody answers (or, alternatively, people respond with sarcasm or passive aggression)
• People shift in their seats, fidget or change the subject.
• People’s body language is closed off (i.e., crossed arms).
• Team members have meetings after the meeting or side chats.
What are ‘meetings after the meetings?’
A meeting after the meeting is the most obvious sign that there’s an elephant in the room and an important one to pay attention to. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before: after the meeting is called to a close, the conversation continues but not with the people who need to be included. A meeting happening after the meeting doesn’t have to be another gathering in a conference room. It can be as simple as two team members walking out of a weekly conference whispering some form of “Oh, my! Can you believe Jane acted that way?” That kind of discussion could just mean these people are gossiping, but it also could be a sign that they didn’t feel safe, empowered, or have the skills to address an elephant.
Post-meeting discussion is the primary way elephants get revealed to me when I run retreats and workshops. On a break, someone from the team I’m working with will pull me aside to talk about an issue. I can always tell it’s coming from the look of concern on their face, and their hushed voice as they ask, “Are you going to discuss X?” or “When in the day would be a good time for me to bring X up?” This is a clear sign we have an elephant, and as soon as we reconvene, we need to find it and free that baby!
How does it feel to have an Elephant in the Room?
Sometimes we’ve gotten so good at tolerating an elephant we don’t realize it’s there. Or we don’t allow ourselves to fully register the presence of an elephant, because it’s too scary or uncomfortable. If we numb our intuitive senses, the elephant can quickly become the norm. It’s helpful to figure out what the presence of an elephant feels like, so we can begin to connect those warning signs with the need to take action.
For me, an elephant in the room often comes across as energy of direct, silent heaviness. There’s tension and I feel tightness and pressure that can make it hard to breathe—almost as if an elephant were sitting on my chest. My eyes dart back and forth looking for the cause. I’ll think, ‘Oh, shit. What’s going on here?’
When I’m facilitating a workshop, and it’s not my elephant, I will still feel the pressure and anxiety, and my heart will race, but I also get excited because I know this team has the potential for a powerful learning moment.
Here’s how other people in an online survey, have described feeling when there’s an elephant in the room:
• “Tense, awkward, impending doom until someone addresses the elephant.”
• “Tingling on skin, heart racing, irritation”
• “Unease, uncertainty, exasperation (just talk about it already!) wondering if it's my place to speak up and address it”
• “A bit of fear. Loss of control. A sense of "if we can't talk about it, my job here is much more difficult, if not impossible." Will I be shunned if I call it out?”
• “It's uncomfortable. You feel as if you want to speak out but aren't sure if you should or not.”
• “Depending on my relationship with the elephant (and I've been on all sides of the great beast), I can actually experience physical symptoms such as tingling, sweating, righteous anger, defensiveness toward the elephant or others, my thoughts can begin racing, I can feel the desire to escape if my security is threatened. Every possible emotion except joy or confidence can show up.”
• “Anxiousness, nervousness, urge to fidget, sense of release when I’m out of the situation or know it’s never going to be addressed.”
• “Anxiety, sadness, at times lonely, anger, fear, frustration.”
• “A little uneasy and nervous. I am a people pleaser, so I want to make people feel better or avoid an "explosion" of negative emotions.”
• “It's uncomfortable with a sense of no trust because people can't or won't be open and honest - often because they feel they might hurt someone's feelings.”
• “Sometimes hopelessness. Internal dialogue - do I go through this again or just keep quiet. Can I approach this another way? Not sure that I have paid close enough attention to my physical reaction, but there must be some tension there.”
• “It depends on the group. If it is a group or team I am comfortable with, I will make a joke or try to blow off whatever caused the situation in the first place.”
• “Mirth generally. It shouldn’t be an issue for adults to address them so it usually makes me laugh.”
• “Dread in the pit of my stomach, tightened throat, fighting off frowning, narrowing my eyes.”
• “Almost like a fog that tightens your chest.”
The most common words used from the data we collected were: tense, anxious, and awkward.
Take a moment and think about your own experience. What does it feel like to you when you are experiencing an elephant in the room?
What Creates an Elephant?
Often, I will hear people speak about the elephant in the room as if it is a person—but it’s not. A person, process or project may cause issues, but it is our avoidance that ultimately creates the elephant. Your annoying coworker is not an elephant. Your coworker’s annoying behavior is not even necessarily the elephant. But your aversion to addressing your coworker’s annoying behavior could be what gives the elephant life—that is, if that aversion prevents you from productively collaborating with him on the project.
This is where we are really trying to drill home: the elephant is the avoidance.
The elephant in the room is created when people see a topic, problem, or risk that impacts success, but they avoid acknowledging it, do not attempt resolution, or assume a resolution isn’t possible.
Conflicts and disagreements on their own don’t equal an elephant in the room. Sometimes we may overcome our avoidance and still not be able to resolve the conflict. There’s a common, limiting belief that a positive relationship doesn’t have a lot of conflicts, but a productive relationship is one where all parties can disagree openly, effectively, and respectfully. Those relationships recover quickly from disagreement and don’t linger in a conflicted state. Relationships, where disagreement is well managed, are elephant-free, or at the very least, don’t encourage elephants to stick around for long. With effective relationships, all parties expect a fair and timely cycle of disagreement to recovery, making it easier to delve into necessary conflicts from a point of psychological safety.
Unlike conflict in an effective relationship, conflict in a relationship where elephants are present will likely lead to resentment, paralysis, or a feeling of resignation. When we don’t recover, repair, and move on more powerfully from disagreements, conflict becomes a barrier to success, and the elephant search needs to begin.
Acceptance vs. Resignation
It’s important for us to define resignation as separate from acceptance as we continue our discussion of elephants. A healthy disagreement isn’t a competition of who is right, but rather it is a commitment to learning as much as we can. That said, in any relationship, there are always going to be moments of loss and disagreements simply because we all hold different values, perspectives, experiences, and opinions. How we show up in those moments of difference can have a significant impact on how we think, feel, and act.
Resignation literally means to give up. Resignation is a reaction.
Think of resignation as, “Well, it is what it is.”
Acceptance, on the other hand, is the act of taking something that is offered.
Acceptance is a response.
Think of acceptance as, “Ok, that’s what we have to work with.”
You can feel the difference between the two. Resignation is to admit defeat.
Acceptance is acknowledging what has happened.
Resignation is toleration. Acceptance allows us the possibility to move forward or move on.
The High Cost of Elephant Upkeep
An elephant left to roam free in a workplace can cause a lot of damage to the organization but more importantly to the people involved. Some of that damage can be immediately apparent, but some you may never see. Think of an apple with its skin on. It looks like a normal apple. Now, imagine that you’ve dropped that apple a few times or it got crushed in your grocery bag. When you select that apple it may still look fine, but it isn’t until you cut it open that you will see the bruising and damage. The same is true when we allow conflict to fester—even if that conflict is merely imagined and lives in our own heads.
Here is what happens when we allow an elephant to linger:
• Distrust increases and trust decreases.
• Team members grow disengaged and disheartened.
• Creativity and innovation can’t thrive.
• People spend energy actively avoiding instead of taking action.
• Ongoing stress can harm a person’s mental and physical health.
This list is not comprehensive. In fact, one of the most simple, direct costs of not freeing an elephant is the loss of time. Let’s take a closer look: years ago, I worked with a team member, Adriana, who had received feedback from her manager that surprised her. She felt like her manager was questioning her intelligence. I knew Adriana’s manager, and it seemed out of character for him to share the kind of feedback she brought to me. While I didn’t think the situation was a big deal, it felt like a big deal to Adriana. The size of the elephant is in the eye of the beholder. A situation that might not seem worth worrying about to you, may feel overwhelming to the other person.
Though she needed to have a conversation to clarify and free that elephant that was her avoidance, it took a month for Adriana to take that leap. When I asked her how much time she thought she spent on this situation, she figured about twenty hours total just thinking about the problem and the impending conversation.
Yes! Twenty hours.
As you might imagine, the beautiful ending to this story is that the conversation clarified the confusion. Adriana left feeling even better about herself and her relationship with her manager. Not only did Adriana understand her manager’s feedback more effectively, but he also learned how to clarify his feedback for aligned impact. She also realized she had the courage to approach a sensitive conversation, and he had the courage to engage with her.
According to data collected by Cy Wakeman for her book, Reality-Based Leadership, people spend on average six hours a day dealing with drama. That means freeing an elephant can have an enormous positive impact on productivity. Adriana’s story is just one example of how this can look in the real world.
The other side of this scenario could have been that Adriana did not have enough trust in her situation or feel enough psychological safety to approach having the conversation with her manager. Power dynamics are heavy at play in our world today, especially at work, whether you realize them or not. Power dynamics show up along the hierarchy of roles, representation, or underrepresentation within a group, culture, and policies of the company among others. Sometimes the risk of speaking up may have real consequences on our livelihoods, both personally and professionally. While my goal is for you to feel more confident freeing elephants, the truth is that you decide if you feel safe enough to free an elephant. There is no shame in keeping one around a while longer until you feel safe. And the truth is, there may be times when you’ll never be safe.
The Power of Trust
The key to successfully overcoming the avoidance and freeing an elephant is the trust component of psychological safety. And look, leaders: I hear you, and I trust you when you say you’re good, kind, and understanding. As we’ve seen in the story above and will see time and time again in this book, even those of us who are kind and wonderful may have people in our sphere who don’t feel safe sharing feedback with us. We can influence someone’s feelings of trust, but ultimately we don’t get to decide how trustworthy we are.
This is important, so let me say it again: You don’t get to decide if you’re trustworthy. Other people do.
And the reality is if people don’t trust you, they’re likely not going to tell you they don’t, even when you ask. So how can we build a culture of safety and trust especially related to hard conversations? One way is through feedback, which we’ll explore later in this book. For now, internalize this: you can say you’re open to hearing feedback, and that may be true. But hearing something and getting curious about it, internalizing it, and doing something about it are two very different things. The latter is required to build the psychological safety you want—and that all the Adriannas out there need and deserve.
Not all elephants are the same size. Your coworker could be heading into an interview with broccoli in their teeth, and you and your team members see it, but don’t say anything. That not saying anything is a micro-elephant. On the opposite extreme is the gigantic, mastodon-sized elephant sitting on a company as they struggle with a truly toxic culture and a CEO who is unwilling to address the damage and/or their role in the toxicity.
Often, we lean on our avoidance because we’re trying to protect our relationships or ourselves. These are natural reactions. When we feel stressed, our brains feel threatened, and they go into protection mode. How does this work, and how can we use this information about how our brain processes events on our journey to face and overcome our elephants? We’ll discuss this in the next chapter.
• Think of a time when you’ve experienced or observed an elephant in the room. What behaviors did you notice in yourself and others?
• What does it feel like physically to you when you notice an elephant in the room?
• When you think about having a conversation about a conflict, what makes you feel unsafe? What makes you feel safe?