Stalking the Elephant in the Room:
by Rick Brenner
When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
A scene from the Orphan Girl Theatre's production of Antigone at the Butte Center for the Performing Arts in 2003. Sophocles' play Antigone contains one of the earliest known references to the idea of "killing the messenger." It is safe to assume that the idea is eons older than that. Photo courtesy the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts and the Butte Center for the Performing Arts.
Because we cannot fix what we cannot talk about, the "elephant in the room" can remain at large indefinitely, causing organizational difficulty, creating stress, raising costs and even creating catastrophes. Often, the elephant becomes discussible only after the damage becomes so obvious as to become undeniable.
Here's Part II of a set of indicators that a group or organization may be harboring elephants. This part emphasizes organizational attributes and policies. See "Stalking the Elephant in the Room: Part I," Point Lookout for June 9, 2010, for some indicators related to personal behavior.
- Messengers have been "killed"
- Some of those with power have occasionally "killed the messenger" as retribution for delivering bad news. This practice encourages others to withhold bad news, or to misrepresent situations as benign when they are not, which provides cover for elephants. To provide cover for elephants, metaphorically killing messengers isn't necessary; metaphorically wounding one now and then is almost as effective.
- High prices for asking for what you need
- When resources are inadequate, those who ask for what they actually need to carry out their responsibilities pay a high price. Their integrity is questioned, they might be relieved of their responsibilities, or they might find future assignments unappealing or degrading. This practice deters others from asking for what they need, and encourages people to believe the unbelievable.
- You've definitely found one elephant
- Elephants like to travel in small herds. An organization capable of tiptoeing around one elephant can probably find the means to tiptoe around several.
- Love-hate relationships
- In the Love form, We cannot fix what
we cannot talk aboutwhenever A speaks, B supports A, even if A is withdrawing a statement previously supported by B. In the Hate form, B opposes A, no matter what. No one ever comments about this pattern.
- Unresolved feuds
- A feud is a Hate relationship involving more than two individuals. Several different factions might be involved in a long-running feud.
- Abrupt, mysterious turnover
- Someone recently quit or was "terminated." The departed provides no satisfactory reason for leaving, and we sometimes don't even know whether the departure was voluntary.
- The existence of organizational black holes
- When organizational problems are reported through appropriate channels to the appropriate people in appropriate ways, there's no evidence of investigation or corrective action of any kind. The report simply disappears as if into a black hole.
- Deft use of "spin"
- When the leaders of an organization deftly use "spin" to mitigate the organizational impact of bad news, either internally or externally, they model that pattern for everyone else. People learn to see what is not there, and to not see what is there. These skills are essential to organizations that harbor elephants.
The items in both parts of this catalog are merely indicators of the possibility of elephants roaming about. Noticing them once in a while isn't proof of elephants, but the more frequently the indicators do occur, the stronger the possibility of elephants. First in this series Top Next Issue
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See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
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