We all know an elephant in the room is bad, right? But there are many kinds of elephants.
This one is an old bull who ambled up to the jeep (this is not a telephoto shot, and it’s my old iPhone). We were in his path, but no problem. He gave us about a foot of leeway and gently ate his way around us. The herd quietly followed. Sometimes encounters with elephants are not dangerous.
The next day wasn’t so nice. Our jeep was caught in a sand trap and a baby elephant was hiding in the bush nearby. That same alpha bull went into protect/attack mode. At first, we just got a warning trumpet as he began trotting our way. The tires squealed as we tried to leave, but we were stuck. When we didn’t move, he went into action. I watched him transform as he slowly flapped his ears, lowered and shook his head, with his trunk swinging back and forth high above his head. And then he charged.
I was at the back of the open-air jeep, nothing between me and this six ton, twelve-foot high wall of screaming outrage. There was no need for the guide to whisper, “Don’t move. No photos. We’ll be fine.” I froze. His crashing into us seemed inevitable. Desperate, I picked where I might throw myself to a safer spot. Suddenly the baby burst out of the bush, trunk up like a periscope emitting piercing baby screams and ran away up the hill. The bull stopped, made a sound of pure elephant disgust and turned away.
When an elephant is in the room, what should you do? Like the guide, know your elephant.
What kind of elephant is in the room—is it dangerous to name it out loud?
Or is it dangerous to not name it?
What is your internal decision tree at this point?
Does it seem that you do not have a choice and you are frozen? If so, is this because of you, the other person, the team, or unarticulated pressures in the organization?
If you feel you DO have a choice what drives it? Are you reflexive, or strategic and thoughtful, or do you think you “should” name it or not name it based on your values and beliefs?
Regardless of the decision you take, you should know your motivation.
Is it right, or is it your right, to name it?—do you know all the context, opportunities and risks?
Could naming unleash things you don’t know you don’t know? Could the elephant be protecting something important?
If you decide to name it—do others have the capacity to hear you?
You may have to name a trunk or an ear before you name the whole thing.
Sometimes having it named is a profound relief. Sometimes not.
What if you find out that YOU are the elephant in the room after someone calls you out? How would you respond?
This is part of the Knowledge Philanthropy Project inspired by Marshall Goldsmith where we are encouraged to give our work away.
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