Is there an undiscussable topic that is preventing your team from working well together or is causing you to avoid working on the things that matter most? Then you may have an elephant in the room.
An elephant in the room is an obvious truth or condition that is being ignored or not addressed, or a risk nobody wants to discuss. Everyone knows these elephants exist – but we try to avoid them or refer to them obliquely. They are often discussed privately either before or after meetings. Our fear is that if we talk about these elephants, they will come to life and trample us. The problem is that unless and until we are free to identify and discuss these sensitive topics openly, they never go away.
When was the last time that you or someone on your team proposed a crazy, unique, absurd, outlandish, or otherwise unconventional idea? Has this ever happened? What kind of reception did the innovative idea (and the person who proposed it) receive?
William Barnett, Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations at Stanford, discussed this topic as part of a recent webinar. He described a “thought experiment” that helps us to consider what happens when someone comes up with a novel idea. This concept aligns with the notion of how the fear of failure can influence whether innovative ideas are surfaced.
Barnett asked the hypothetical question, “When you have a good idea, does everybody have to agree with that idea for it to be correct?” (Most people would say, “No”).
Barnett then asked, “When we have an innovative idea, what is often the first thing we do? We ask others, ‘What do you think?’ “If the people we ask don’t like our innovative idea, what do we do then? We often ask someone else. Basically, we are looking for affirmation that the idea that we have is a good one.”
Imagine that your group or organization had just reached a milestone of achievement that was noteworthy. Perhaps it was a new productivity target or quality performance or safety record. The management team has decided that they should recognize everyone for their efforts and a celebration is planned. What could possibly be the down side of that?
Unfortunately, some celebrations ring hollow – even to those who are the recipients of the accolades or recognition. Why? Perhaps you have heard some people gossiping in muted tones as they await the lunch that is being served to them to acknowledge their achievement. For these employees, there is no connection between anything that they did and the outcome.
“Sure, it’s great to get a free lunch/pizza/whatever. But I don’t really have a clue about what we did differently to get to this performance level.”