Is there an elephant in your workplace?

Is there an elephant in your workplace?

Elephants never forget, the saying goes, and we supposedly can never ignore elephants in the room. 

Both sayings pertain to one undeniable thing in workplaces – when a boss can’t tell a staff member something, or vice versa, and this just burgeons until the office is quaking!


So how does an elephant come to exist and what might cause it to go away?


ELEPHANT A. Someone is feeling ignored and unappreciated

One fertile area for elephant growth is when a person feels ignored or unappreciated. There starts to be a little tension in the air, expectations not met on both sides and it grows from there – the seed of doubt and disappointment can grow into a full blown elephant.

People need more than bonuses and monetary rewards to feel they’re progressing and thereby noticed and appreciated. Awards, a special thank you, new projects, public nominations, an afternoon off, a birthday present, new titles … all show a person is appreciated.

If lack of recognition is the type of elephant you’re experiencing or witnessing, a canny manager nips this in the bud by doing the following:

1. Be an observant caring manager who manages outcomes.

Be keen and interested to track where your employees are going with their careers and projects. Monitor deliverables by setting and agreeing to realistic timelines, and be very clear about who requires supervision. Some people are definitely happier for a little boss TLC and hand-holding (this can take the form of a regular coffee to discuss progress, or perhaps regular communication). Others prefer money, a promotion, or perhaps greater flexibility in their work arrangement. Find ways to show that you value people, and they in turn will want to stick around.

2. Knowing when it’s time to speak up. 

This requires honesty and good judgment on timing. Is recognition due? What does the recipient require? Set aside a place and time to discuss this, and encourage the freedom for all parties to air what’s on their minds. Use discretion, and forethought. Some elephants are easily captured, but others may prove elusive.

3. Recognise that elephants might exist.

Be very open to the fact that somewhere in the office there may be a problem or systemic issue that caused the elephant in the first place. If you’re perpetually too breezy and ahead of the game, you may have created an environment where the more careful creatures resent you. 

ELEPHANT B. Someone has a problem

Elephants mostly apply to unpalatable truths that seemingly cannot be aired for fear of engendering something worse. It may be that a staff member or a manager is an alcoholic. Or perhaps you have an overly prickly colleague who bristles at the slightest mention of a topic. Both will inevitably affect office performance and morale before long.

Elephants certainly develop because of distrust.  

You must build trust within the team, and between you and your colleagues. Open communication is essential to prevent elephants taking over and making matters worse.

ELEPHANT C. The stress builder

If you are too pushy and always talking results, maybe you are creating a big stress elephant. If you are moody, maybe no one can tell you that you are driving others mad. Put aside some time and willingness to quietly delve into the origins of this particular elephant.

Whether you’re a boss or staff member:

  • Act in a way that allows others to trust you. Lead by example, by bringing up an elephant that you find difficult, and how you propose to deal with it accordingly.
  • If you’re a manager, have focused conversations about what the organisation is trying to achieve, and provide opportunities for people to bring up “elephants” they’re experiencing. 
  • Demonstrate preparedness to be impartial and an ability to listen and facilitate open discussion. If that prickly person threatens to explode at the mere mention of a phrase or word, it’s time to address what’s really going on here. 
  • Ensure everyone on the team is contributing positively and not able to undermine others.
  • Reward people who make the difficult choices i.e. constructively dealing with the elephants. If you’re a staff member, show appreciation of the elephant catcher – it takes courage to mention the beast.
  • Consider having elephants on the monthly team agenda. Do what you can to create harmony and openness until the elephants have dispersed.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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