The phrase “Elephant in the Room” has been around for over a century and is a metaphorical idiom for an important or controversial issue that everyone knows about but no one wants to discuss. Why not? Because it makes many team members uncomfortable and can open up difficult topics of discussion, especially in the current state of politics globally.

Elephant in the Room
Elephant in the Room

Our distinguished guest CEO this week providing our CEO Tip is Gayle Lantz, Founder & CEO of WorkMatters, Inc., a leadership consulting firm that works with change-agent leaders who want to grow their business and themselves. Gayle is also the host of the CEO on the Go Podcast, the author of the award-winning book, Take the Bull by the Horns, and the creator of The Leadership Journal. Gayle has worked with CEOs and Management teams for over two decades and brings a unique in-depth perspective to our CEO Insights blog that you may enjoy and gain benefit from. The following was originally posted on WorkMatter’s website and recreated here. She also did a podcast on this topic which can be found here.

It’s there. Sometimes sitting quietly while you maneuver around it in conversation. You’re hoping it might just go away.

Other times, it’s so big and blatant that it becomes your sole focus.

It’s the elephant in the room, of course. And it’s one of the greatest threats to your business.

In my consulting work over the years, I have realized that one of the greatest challenges facing executives is how to deal with the elephant in the room.

You may have missed that lesson in school. Unfortunately, many executives struggle in this area. Consider it an undervalued “leadership skill.”

The elephant comes disguised in different ways:

  • The disconnect between employees and management
  • The manipulation of numbers or processes
  • The tension between partners
  • The disagreement about strategy
  • The clash of different personalities
  • The hidden agenda
  • The wrong job fit

You know what it is for you.

The question is what to do about it.

Almost always, the key lies in communication.

Part of your responsibility as a leader is to create a safe and trusting environment in which people can communicate openly about what’s on their minds.

Here are some factors to weigh as you consider how to address the elephant in the room.

  • What’s the upside of addressing the issue? The truth is there is usually more reason to address the issue than not. You’ll get to the heart of matters that are keeping you stuck or hurting performance. Many executives report that they actually feel better after airing issues constructively. Be optimistic.

  • What’s the downside or risk of addressing the issue? Some people may be sensitive. Feelings may be hurt. Determine what’s really at stake – the business, your reputation, relationships. What’s the worst that could happen? Be realistic.

  • What’s the risk of not addressing the issue at all? In many cases, the risk of not doing anything is the greatest risk. You might be losing potential opportunities or focusing on areas that are not growing the business. Constantly sweeping issues under the rug makes you trip when you walk on it. Be brave.

  • Who needs to be involved? Can you address the issue privately with another person in the business? Perhaps you need to talk in a small group. You might benefit by including an outside resource or neutral party. In some cases, you may hold an open meeting with your team.

  • What is the best timing? The best time is when you’re least likely to be emotional, when you’re thinking clearly, when you’re least stressed. Understand what timing works best for others involved. If people are working on deadlines, wait. Schedule time to meet on the calendar. That shows the issue is a priority.

  • What is the outcome you’re looking for? When addressing any potentially sensitive situation, it’s a good idea to stay focused on the ultimate outcome that you’d like to achieve. State your intent up front. Listen a lot.

It’s natural to dread a sensitive conversation. Instead, believe you will handle the conversation in the best way.

If the elephant remains in the room too long, it’s probably taking up space in your head as well. Ruminating about a problem is not solving it. Take the action you need to take to resolve the issue.

The sooner you address the issue, the sooner you can focus on priorities that are most relevant to your business — and minimize disruption.

Don’t let the elephant turn your business into a circus.

The Rookie CEO, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!

I invite you to read my book to learn more about how new CEOs will lead, how they can succeed, regardless of their backgrounds, philosophies, and leadership styles, and how these affect the culture they will create as a new CEO or leader.

Thank you for visiting the CEO Insights blog, and I look forward to your return!