A typical work day for most of us is filled with conversations. Managers and direct reports discuss what work needs to be accomplished, by when, and what success should look like. Colleagues talk about the impact that recent changes are having on their roles and their teams. Leaders articulate their vision for the company's future, and how to execute on that. And everyone's talking about the season finale of their favorite TV show, how the local sports team rallied (or failed to rally) in last night's game, or the weather.
As Linda Lambert Ph.D., author of Liberating Leadership Capacity, put it, "One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever."
But that only works with topics you're willing to have a conversation about. Every organization has "elephants in the room," or obvious problems and difficult situations that people avoid discussing. As Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School explained, these topics become undiscussable to "avoid surprise, embarrassment, or threat."
Furthermore, people tend not to bring up topics when they think to themselves, "I'm sure someone else will bring it up so I don't have to" (known as "diffusion of responsibility"). In addition, employees avoid discussing subjects where the perceived threat is social rejection, perhaps thinking to themselves, "If I say something this time, I'll be left out of future conversations." And few of us want to be the person who is being avoided, shunned, or ignored.
In their book, The Thin Book of Naming Elephants: How to Surface Undiscussables for Greater Organizational Success, authors Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea B. Mayfield write that "paying attention to what people talk about and what they don't talk about is often an overlooked key to organizational success."
When kind of organizational success? The kind where employees are more satisfied with their jobs, perform better, and are less likely to quit.
So what should you do rather than ignore the elephant? Hammond and Mayfield advise you to learn how to have constructive dialogue with all levels of the organization, where constructive dialogue is defined as "people talking to each other in a respectful manner that allows information to be shared and acted on."
Here are three elephants that may be small enough to start with but big enough to make a significant impact if addressed.
1. Whose contributions to our team's conversations seem to get prioritized, and what seem to get minimized.
Contributions from those who can think on their feet may get prioritized over those who prefer to take some time to think about it; contributions from men may get prioritized over those from women; contributions from people who are physically present in the office may get prioritized over those who work remotely or in other offices.
2. What personal needs seem to take precedence over others?
People with young kids may get a flexible schedule, where others don't; people with physical health challenges may get treated differently than those with mental health challenges; those with interests and hobbies similar to the boss' may get more flexibility than those whose interests differ.
3. What "bad behavior" is permitted to continue.
An assistant who regularly comes in late and leaves early (but who doesn't have an agreed-upon arrangement to do so); a whip-smart employee who acts out or withdraws, and it's written off as "that's just how he is"; a colleague who turns in written work that she hasn't proofread, and others on the team need to clean it up.
How to bring it up with the boss:
"I've noticed a dynamic on our team that I'm curious/concerned about. I'd like to share what I'm noticing, and get your perspective as well. Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about it? And if so, when would be a good time?"
How to invite a discussion if you are the boss:
"I know that in every organization, there are some topics that seem "undiscussable", which can lead to frustration, fear and resentment. Our organization is no exception - and that's not the culture I want to create. Would you be willing to share with me at least one topic that you've avoided bringing up so far? And what commitment would you need from me in order to feel comfortable sharing your perspective with me?"
Whatever you do, don't let the elephant in the room grow so big it squeezes you and other talented employees out of the company. As author and leadership expert Margaret Wheatley said, "Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters."