Note: "The elephant in the living room" is a common metaphor for situations in which people refuse to confront or even acknowledge a major issue even though everyone knows about it and it is causing serious problems.
Individuals who are faced with difficult issues frequently choose to ignore them entirely or discuss them only indirectly. While most people would concur that issues such as disagreements over a course of action or poor performance should be addressed clearly and directly, the reality is that many are not comfortable doing so. It's so much easier at those moments to revert to the "politically correct" indirect methods that are the norm in many organizations. The failure to honestly and directly confront poor performance or unwise courses of action, for example, becomes the proverbial elephant in the living room - or in this case, the workplace.
There are many reasons why people engage in the indirect, "politically correct" approaches to problems. Do any of these explanations sound familiar to you?
• Our self-image is at odds with direct communication because we think of ourselves as "nice" people and we believe "nice" people don't upset others.
• We don't want to upset others because we are uncomfortable dealing with emotions.
• We buy into the saying "to get along you need to go along."
• We don't want to be "responsible" for another person's being called on the carpet for his/her shoddy work or lack of judgment.
How candid are the conversations in your workplace? Do people feel they can speak freely and honestly with each other, or do they fear real or imagined negative consequences, such as being labeled a troublemaker?
Here are a few of the ways that a lack of candor can hurt organizations:
- Kill innovation and creativity
- Shortchange employees by masking their actual performance
- Create a toxic environment and a culture of mistrust and fear
- Reward poor performance, causing productivity and morale to plunge
- Foster a culture of mediocrity
How can you avoid or minimize the toxic results of the elephant's presence? More importantly, how can you create a healthy environment in which managers and employees regularly engage in productive, realistic, and candid conversations? Here are four suggestions to get you started:
- Teach people the skills that enable them to have honest, direct conversations.
For example, teach them to:
- Engage in constructive confrontation. This is not an oxymoron! Handled effectively, confrontation can be a healthy, positive experience that results in stronger, better thought-out decisions. My favorite definition of confrontation, which comes from a program I offer my clients called Influencing Options®, is "a respectful request for a new behavior or a change in behavior."
- Focus on behaviors. This prevents people from addressing personalities or characteristics, which have nothing to do with performance.
- Be specific. When we are vague, we essentially give others permission to fill in the blanks about what they think we mean.
- Provide constructive feedback. Offer actionable information.
- Receive constructive feedback. Few things kill candid conversations as quickly as people who are unable or unwilling to listen to others and act on their legitimate concerns and expertise.
- Reward candid behavior. Recognize people who take the risk of raising an opposing concern or argument, regardless of whether they ultimately are right or wrong. Establish a culture in which legitimate questioning behavior is supported and actively encouraged.
- Hold managers and employees accountable. People's actions generally are aligned with their self-interest. When there are consequences for being less than candid, people will change their behaviors.
- Let people know the consequences of indirect, non-candid communications. Follow through as necessary.
What actions will you take today to begin to herd the political correctness "elephant" out of your workplace?