Are There ‘Elephants’ in Your Organization?


Are There ‘Elephants’ in Your Organization?

How fear gets in the way of achieving potential

There’s an elephant in the room.
It is large and squatting
So it is hard to get around.

We talk about everything else –
Except the elephant in the room.
We all know it is there.

It is constantly on our minds.
For, you see, it is a very big elephant.

It has hurt us all, but we do not talk about the elephant in the room.
-Excerpts from Terry Kettering


Elephants in an organization — whether an overbearing leader, an uncooperative colleague, unrealistic expectations from management or a dysfunctional team — are impossible to overlook and everyone knows they exist. So why aren’t “elephants” confronted?  We can find all kinds of reasons and excuses — “It’s not my place.” “I am afraid my boss will fire me.” or “my colleagues will get upset with me” or the one I have heard the most over the years, “It won’t do any good anyway.” However, when it comes down to the emotional drivers of these rationalizations, it is because people are simply too afraid to act.

The cost of not dealing with ‘elephants’ to a firm can be significant. Because of the fears of — failure, criticism, exploitation, peer pressure, looking stupid, etc. — employees don't emerge problems or issues they are having. They don’t offer their insight or suggestions, nor do they take initiative. They survive their day at work being self-protective, leaving their resourcefulness and creativity at home. Although they would like to be fully engaged at work, they end up doing their job on autopilot and figuring out how to work around the issues they are confronted with daily.

Some elephants are more catastrophic than others are. For example, the crash of the spaceship Challenger is an example of what happens when the “elephant” is ignored and not dealt with.

The Challenger disaster was investigated by the Rogers Commission who found that NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident.  NASA managers had known contractor Morton Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors. NASA management responded to pressure from the military, Congress, and the media rather than to deal with the danger that was obvious to many employees. NASA management was afraid to stop the launch and more concerned with getting results that they failed to ensure the safety of their people.

Do you have an elephant in your organization that is getting in the way of your business success that everyone is working around? What are you or other people in your business afraid to confront? We would love to hear your stories about what happens when the real issues aren’t being confronted and dealt with in organizations.