Tackling the Elephant in the Room: Is It Even Worth It?

Isaac Newton

By River Ho Rathore

Over lunch several weeks back, a friend confided that he was unhappy with the way senior management was making decisions about their business operations, including its staff management. According to him, everyone in the team felt that improvements had to be done, from the way all tasks were considered urgent, to how the senior leaders easily assumed that team members would willingly stay late at night and still be available earlier than usual the next morning.

“Well, did you give them this feedback?,” I asked. He moved his head from side to side.

“Why not?,” I pressed on.

He drew a deep breath, intimating surrender. “I know them; they won’t listen to any of their juniors. I’ll just be wasting my time telling them this. At the end, I will suffer the consequences and put my job security and satisfaction on the line.”

I asked again, “Are you satisfied that you’re keeping mum about this? You really have a choice here. On the one hand, you can be quiet and fume about it in private. On the other, you can speak up – in a respectful way of course – about the team’s concerns and find solutions together. If you don’t try having an honest and candid conversation, how do you know if they were aware of these issues, and what they think about them?”

“But River…”, he trails off, lips pursed, thinking I just can’t do it.

It is a tough question: do we tackle the proverbial elephant in the room, or do we keep quiet in the interest of harmony? For sure, it is a dilemma that all of us have faced at home, at work, and everywhere in between – in some societies more than others.

One of my favourite reads and which I have used in team alignment workshops is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. More than anything, the book underscores the critical role communication plays in building trust. And by communication, I mean that deep, honest and authentic type of conversation that most of us run away from because it is uncomfortable, sometimes even painful.

Communication just makes everything better. It allows us to speak openly about our concerns, tune in to the perspectives of others, and mutually come to a solution that we would not arrive at if we were speculating on our own. In my previous role, I have witnessed teams working with renewed spirit just by opening up communication lines, encouraging team members to speak their minds and listening to each other without assumptions. As a testament to this, many a number of corporations have ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ as part of their core values.

But, I get it, #thestruggleisreal.

In spite of the advantages of communication, we tend wait and see if someone else brings up the issue so we do not, as we say, shoot ourselves in the foot. We are gripped with fear because we assume that the other party will not listen and will even retaliate against us. Meanwhile, we stress about it and vent on social media. And if it is a work issue, we start applying to other companies, hoping to escape the situation.

Does keeping quiet solve the issue, though?

My friend, along with several others in his team, has since left his job to join another company, one that he hopes has less management issues. He maintains contact with his former manager, though up to now, he still waits for the right time to speak about and recommend solutions to the workplace issues he experienced. I say too little, too late.

In any relationship, trust is built only when we openly speak what we truly think.

Think about it: why do we recommend marriage counselling to partners who have drifted apart, or a ‘heart-to-heart’ conversation over coffee to warring friends? It is because having a deep, honest and authentic conversation works.

The same applies to the corporate world. If we have an issue, and we truly care about our workplace and our relationships, we will make the effort to speak up, to listen, and to find a workable solution. No hiding behind the annual (and anonymous) employee survey, no fuming in private while sending CVs out to other companies, no waiting for the exit interview. Just speak up. It is worth it.

And if we are the manager, let us be reminded that those core values of ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ are plastered on our walls for a valuable reason – that for us to build magic with our teams, we need to be able to openly speak what we truly think. We can only capitalise on our team’s collective wisdom if we enable them to tackle that elephant in the room.

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