Elephants are those issues that a team or organization knows is present but no one feels that they can talk about. That fear comes from knowing that the leader is not willing to put those issues on the table and you will be met with resistance, pushback or retribution. The number of elephants in any organization is a direct indicator of its health. The greater the number of elephants, the more unhealthy the organization. A low number of elephants indicates a healthier organization.
Here is what we forget. There is a high cost to elephants. Elephants represent issues that ought to be addressed because they are negatively impacting the organization or team. Choosing to leave elephants alone means that these issues cannot be solved. And the ironic thing is that everyone is aware that the elephant exists even as they try to pretend that it is not present which of course they know it is. Elephants breed cynicism and mistrust when unaddressed.
There is an alternative to letting the elephants be but it also comes with a cost. The alternative is transparency, what I call in my writings Robust Dialogue. Its definition is that any issue can be put on the table with the exception of a personal attack or hidden agenda.
The cost? The cost is that Robust Dialogue means that there will be uncomfortable conversations from time to time. Yet without uncomfortable conversations there is no significant progress, there are no paradigm shifts and there are no game changers. Elephants keep progress from occurring while Robust Dialogue forces the conversation and drives change in the process. So the cost of elephants is stagnation while the cost of Robust Dialogue is hard conversations and progress.
Both elephants and transparency have a cost attached. And a result. The question is which result do we want? If you are a leader at any level, which culture are you creating? If it is a culture of not rocking the boat you will allow elephants to exist and guard the status quo. It is a comfortable place for you to be. If it is a culture of transparency you will drive progress at the cost of hard conversations. It may be uncomfortable but it will be far more successful.
You may think there are no elephants on your team or in your organization. There is one good way to find out. Ask your staff what elephants exist that need to be named? They will tell you and once an elephant is named it is no longer an elephant but simply an issue to be discussed.