Talking about the elephant in the room
Self-awareness and growth in the workplace
Have you ever watched Will & Grace, a sitcom with a gay guy and his best friend Grace, whom was in love with him? They’re soul mates not ever meant to be together. They are two parts of the same coin in separate bodies, but with such different desires and needs in life that they are simply incompatible. She wants to get married and have kids and kiss her husband under the mistletoe. He can’t be intimate with women.
But they have more in common than what they disagree on, and they continue living together as best friends, making their odd relationship work somehow.
It’s a story I love for the total acceptance there is between these two. The brutal honesty that sometimes hurts. The connection and commitment stronger than anything or anyone else in their lives. If you want to learn about relationships, this is a series I can recommend.
The elephant in the room
However, I stopped watching at a stage because Grace got pregnant while continuing to act during her pregnancy. Initially, she just gained a few pounds and someone made a funny comment about it. Then, however, the bump started to show and I anxiously waited for someone to say something. But rather than say anything, they tried to hide it. Covering her tummy with a cushion and making her sit as much as possible so that the growing child inside her remains invisible to the audience.
Later in her pregnancy, it wasn’t possible anymore to hide it and I was sure they are going to weave this into the story somehow. But each episode came and went without mention of a pregnancy or a baby.
Finally, she gave birth and was written out of the story for a few episodes before she returned. Still, nothing was said, as if it never happened. Not a peep from anyone.
I stopped watching. It bothered me for months in the background of my mind, not able to forget about this. Not that I usually ponder sitcoms I watch, especially not comic relief as Will & Grace is intended to be. But it really, really, really bothered me that nothing was mentioned for something so obvious and so undeniable.
Why does it bother me that no-one talks about the elephant in the room?
As a thinker, constantly doing retrospect of anything that causes me emotional discomfort, I decided to figure out why this bothered me so much. I realized that it reminds me of work. Where so many elephants are in the room but no-one ever mentions it, hoping that if it’s not called on it’s name that it doesn’t exist.
But it does.
Everyone knows it. Everyone can see it. Everyone experiences it. Yet, no-one is willing to talk about it. Or even admit it exists.
Except me that is. I don’t like secrets much. It always hurts more than hearing the truth when someone keeps a secret. It also denies restoring harmony in a relationship. You wouldn’t let your best friend or partner walk out of the house with an odd pair of shoes, so why should you not want to point out when your co-workers are behaving in a dysfunctional way?
When the elephant is allowed for long enough without talking about it, it becomes part of the toxic culture which destroys relationships and with that trust.
When you do talk about the elephant in the room it might be uncomfortable and might even hurt, but also it gives you an opportunity to resolve the disharmony that exists. And it only hurts when your ego is inflated because without an ego it is merely what it is — an elephant in the room that doesn’t belong there. It’s not good or bad, it’s just not advisable to have an elephant in the room if you want to have a trusting, high performance team. It’s simply functional to find ways to reduce the size of the elephant or get rid of it totally. It’s for the better of the entire organization.
By refusing to acknowledge the elephant it just gets bigger. Ignoring it doesn’t make it disappear magically.
The topic of trust
In a recent post called “Dear Agile, I’m Tired of Pretending” by Charles Lambdin he succinctly summarizes this phenomenon in one sentence.
“ Agile actually tends to mask the core problem, which is a systemic, bidirectional lack of vertical trust.”
I don’t necessarily agree that agile masks the core problem, as agile rather reveals the problem than mask it. I also don’t think agile as such can be blamed for trust issues but rather the culture, the agile implementation and most of all the leadership within the organization. And maybe the amount of certified Scrum Masters out there who have no idea of what agility is really about as it’s not possible to teach that in 2 days.
But I do agree that the core problem in organizations where agile is not working well is a lack of trust.
The impact of missing trust
When you’re not willing to hear the people on the floor as a leader, you break down trust. When you feel you’re unable to speak to a leader or have input into decisions as an employee, you tend to speak about it with your co-workers at the water coolers in a negative way.
Because everyone wants to be heard. Even if it means that it needs to be talked about secretly behind the manager’s back.
When people can’t be vulnerable and speak truthfully, there can be no trust. Without trust, no matter how well your intentions, your agile transformation will only be as effective as the amount of effort you can invest in convincing people to do what you want them to do. Eventually, you’ll get tired of always having to beg an plead and fight though. It’s not a sustainable approach to change.
Do as I say, not as I do
Words mean very little when you are a leader. It’s the actions that define who you are in the eyes of your team. People don’t do as you say, they do as you do. Most leaders however except their teams to behave as they say they want them to behave. Their actions however contradict this and it causes confusion. Ultimately, however, it’s the actions that will trump in the fight for behavior change.
From a young age the way we learn is by observing and copying. First we copy our family, then we copy our peers and teachers. We learn from each other what is acceptable behavior and what not.
In the business world, being successful usually means being in the good books of your CEO or direct manager. That means you have to behave in a way that he or she deems ‘good behavior’. This happens so automatic that most people don’t even realize they are doing it. They just know that it gets them the approval they want and continue doing so, forming it as a habit, without questioning whether it is a good or bad habit for the situation.
Being honest, however, is not easy for most people. The bigger your ego the harder it is to hear the truth.
The truth however doesn’t have to hurt. It merely requires you to step back and view it from an objective, curious objective. Rather than immediately respond and react by rejecting the person who told you a truth you would rather not hear, look at it curiously.
Is it really true?
Can you find proof of how it is true and how it is false?
How does your role models behave given the same situation?
What is the impact when you do the opposite?
Rather than seeing it as an attack on you as a person, see it as an opportunity to experiment. See it as a chance to gain self-awareness. Use it to grow.
Is the elephant useful?
Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter as much as acknowledging the elephant and analysing its validity and usefulness. Just because there’s an elephant doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Grace having a baby wasn’t bad as such, it was just unspoken of. There was no explanation given.
When Wikipedia originally became popular it received a lot of criticism of not being accurate. Academics discarded it, not accepting it as a reputable source of information and when people used it as reference, the were corrected.
Whether it was true or not, it was an accurate reflection of people’s beliefs around certain topics. Wikipedia in fact gave us the opportunity to become aware of how wrong we were on certain subjects and now it is deemed a much more reputable source of information than what it was years ago.
But it was the elephant in the room that was in everyone’s head only until there was a platform where it could be validated and interpreted by other people, with the result making it more accurate.
When Twitter recently used AI to learn what people know, they switched it off because within the first few hours the main learning was that the chatbot was a racist asshole.
Does it make the information wrong or bad? Absolutely not. It’s a true reflection of the mindset of many people tweeting and what is in the news. It is an inconvenient truth, something we would rather not have, but it is true nevertheless.
It does, however, also give us the opportunity to become aware of this undesirable topics that we talk about and we can actively do something about it. We can stop tweeting about the bad things and focus on the more positive options. We can stop following the news channels and people broadcasting these messages and find channels who broadcasts something more useful.
The elephant in the room is not the bad guy. It’s just that. It’s an elephant in the room.
It’s something that needs to be spoken about.
So talk about it.
By talking about the elephant you give an opportunity to build trust and more functional habits within an organization. You also give an opportunity to improve performance and productivity. And who doesn’t want that?