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January 2016
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The Public Manager

Can We Talk About the Elephant in the Room?

Public managers can follow a few steps to open the dialogue to undiscussable topics.

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Elephant in the room (noun). A large issue that everyone is acutely aware of, but nobody wants to talk about. Perhaps a sore spot, politically incorrect, or a political hot potato, it's something that no one wants to touch with a 10-foot pole. Sometimes referred to as a pink elephant in the room. (Source: Urbandictionary.com)

Let's think about this elephant thing for just a moment, literally. An elephant, even a very small elephant, would take up a lot of space in a meeting room. African elephants can grow eight to 13 feet from shoulder to toe and weigh between 5,000 and 14,000 pounds. Not to mention, elephants have a diet of tough, fibrous foods, and much of what they consume passes through their bodies undigested. That is to say, an adult elephant can produce up to 165 pounds of manure each day.

Using the elephant analogy may cause a chuckle (or slight nausea), but the impact of elephants in the room is no laughing matter. What's more, the effect they have on the workplace can be devastating. Noted Harvard University professor Chris Argyris explained that when undiscussables exist, their existence is also undiscussable. So not only are elephants there, and we know it, we can't talk about them because doing so violates the norms of the organization.

Indeed, personal reluctance and organizational defenses make for a powerful defense against identifying elephants. The results are organizational distrust, limited productivity, broken relationships, and poor-quality outcomes.

Undiscussable topics in the public sector come in all shapes and sizes, such as:

  • productivity standards for teleworkers
  • proclivity of a supervisor to raise her voice to staff members
  • unacceptable quality of work produced by an organizational entity
  • perception that the boss treats select groups or individuals better than others.

Most disturbing is that undiscussables often expose a direct conflict between what we say we believe and how we behave. We may indicate our desire for fairness and courtesy, but when those values are violated in the workplace, we may very well be the ones who sit silent. The logical follow-up to these issues is to rationalize our decision by assuming it is someone else's problem, or thinking the problem may work itself out at a later time. In either scenario, the anxiety and fear accompanying an undiscussable topic is all too real.
Here's the good news: A few simple steps can open the conversation.

Name the issue, gently. This can be difficult to do, even in groups or teams where there is an established sense of trust and vulnerability. The key is to bring up the issue or problem gently, without emotion, in a positive caring and compassionate way—all while keeping focus on the ultimate mission or goals of the organization.

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Make it about the issue, not the person. Issues do not have emotions, but people do. Many times, undiscussables are tied to individuals that are in the room who may have ownership of, or be embarrassed by, the question to be discussed. In all cases, it is best to assume noble intent.

Be sensitive, and don't be a crusader. The goal in bringing up and identifying an elephant in the room is not to embarrass or humiliate anyone in attendance. It is also not meant to be used as an excuse to bash the organization. Sensitivity and a gentle curiosity is typically a very effective approach in forging useful dialogue. The more comfortable people are as the elephant is discussed, the more likely you will blaze a path for corrective measures.

Quickly move to action. In keeping with the animal theme of this column, don't beat a dead horse. Once the issue is brought to the table in a curious and reflective way, move to action steps. Identifying the next steps will give people comfort in knowing that solutions are on the horizon, and it will generate a positive feeling for having made the organization even better.

Cleaning up after you have an elephant in the room is messy business. It takes time, patience, and heart—as you test emotions and push boundaries. But only by surfacing and deliberating over undiscussables can we ensure our teams operate to their full potential.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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