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June 16, 2010 Volume 10, Issue 24
 
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Stalking the Elephant in the Room: Part II

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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

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 about
whenever 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  Go to top Top  Next issue: This Is the Only Job  Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:

The Fram, Amundsen's shipBreaking the Rules
Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin PowellDevious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends. Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage. Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthologyWhy Don't They Believe Me?
When we want people to believe us, and they don't, it just might be a result of our own actions or demeanor. How does this happen?
Red Ball Express troops stack "jerry cans" used to transport gasoline to front-line units during World War II.Inappropriate Levels of Regard
The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
The Niagara River and cantilever bridgeBottlenecks: Part I
Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Magic Lantern Slide of a dog jumping through a hoopComing May 4: Just-In-Time Hoop-Jumping
Securing approvals for projects, proposals, or other efforts is often called "jumping through hoops." Hoop-jumping can be time-consuming and frustrating. Here are some suggestions for jumping through hoops efficiently. Available here and by RSS on May 4.
Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015And on May 11: Characterization Risk
To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble. Available here and by RSS on May 11.

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