We often talk about the “elephant in the room.” Which, if you think about it for just a couple of seconds too long, is a fascinating metaphor. It is also one you have to seriously question the origins of.
As circumstances have it, though, there are indeed origins. The Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov wrote a very brief story, The Inquisitive Man. In it, the protagonist mentions all sorts of minutiae and detail, from flies and butterflies to bits of beetles, all wondrous, beautiful, colourful and tiny: “Why, really, some of them are smaller than a pin’s head.” When asked what he thought of the elephant, however, he replies with chagrin: “Well, brother, you mustn’t be too hard upon me; but to tell the truth, I didn’t remark on the elephant.”
The elephant in the room has since entered common usage as a way of describing the tendency of groups to be distracted, obsessive and myopic about situations, “ignoring the elephant in the room.”
In most instances, however, the issue is not that the elephant is not being seen. We all know the elephant is there. People simply don’t want to talk about it. The consequence is metaphorical pachyderms taking up space and oxygen in meeting rooms the world over, seen but not acknowledged, felt but not discussed, resented but not responded to. As someone who facilitates a great deal, it is a phenomenon that I marvel at. Collectively, we have an enormous willingness to avoid dealing with things that make us uncomfortable, and an incredible tolerance for accepting that discomfort as the price for not stepping up and doing differently.
In facilitating, I have learned to actively look for the elephant. I strive to discern its nature and features. I attempt to get a sense of what it represents, and why it is there, and what purpose its presence serves for the group. Whereupon I pretty consistently call the elephant out to the group.
There is a fascinating transition that occurs when the elephant is acknowledged and asked about. Rather than denial or continued avoidance, there is recognition and acceptance. People suddenly want to talk about the elephant, and do so willingly and sometimes at length. Acknowledging and addressing what has been ignored and suppressed for so it long borders on the cathartic. On a really good day, the elephant is invited to leave; on a great day, it recognizes its presence is no longer required, and ambles out of its own accord. As with so many change approaches, however, the path to improvement starts with acknowledging that you have a problem.
While all of this is fascinating in its own right, it’s territory that I have covered before. But it leads to an area of further exploration. For all that groups have elephants that haunt their collective spaces, each of us have the same grey mammoths taking up residence in our grey matter.
I’ve written in the past few weeks about my personal journey down rabbit holes, and to the cliffs of insanity. Like our discussion today, they examined metaphors that represented personal challenges that I’ve been working through. I have spent time either distracting myself with research, or using the need for research as a means of avoiding moving forward.
I have also recognized that staying comfortable can avoid confronting and dealing with the hard work of moving forward. In my personal instance, that was a complacency about what I knew—and what I didn’t know—on several technological fronts that were keeping me from progressing in the way that I desired and intended.
In the past couple of weeks, I have been working to tackle those challenges head on. That has involved a lot more (relatively productive) research and investigation. I’ve still spent a great deal of time figuring things out. At times, it has felt like I’ve been on the receiving end of a firehose of information, struggling to make sense of what it means, how it all relates and how to apply it.
I have persisted and worked through the challenges, and come out the other side with a clearer understanding of what I need to do, how to do it and the pathway forward. That has not been easy, and where I am now is still in the early stages of working through projects that will take a lot more time and effort to bring to fruition.
What I have recognized in that experience is something that feels a great deal like what happens when a group confronts its elephant. Rather than avoiding and dreading doing the work, I am looking forward to it. Rather than experiencing doubt and lack of confidence about what to do and where to go, I’m feeling in control and on top of what needs to be accomplished. There is a ridiculous amount of work to do, and I’m really not going to enjoy some of it, but I am able to clearly define what needs to be done, why it is important and the resulting impact that it can have.
The elephants in our brain perform the same (dys)function as the elephants in the room. They take up space, they sap energy and they weigh us down with their mass. Recognizing the elephant for what it is and acknowledging it miraculously shifts perspective even if you know that dealing with that reality will still take work and effort.
I am not going to pretend that having called out my own personal elephant means that it is not going to show up again. There are many ways it might yet manifest itself in the future. Avoiding doing the work would be an easy one, and a circumstance I would like to avoid; I would be older, theoretically wiser, and yet no further ahead. The fact that there is precedent, in the form of many great ideas and future possibilities that have been pushed down the road, should be its own cautionary tale.
The elephant may also return attached to new and significant learning opportunities. One of the greatest insights that getting me a doctorate afforded me is a genuine appreciation for exactly how much I do not know (and, if I am very honest, will never know). That insight can be its own form of intimidation. For everything you know, there is far more that you do not, can not and will not appreciate about a subject. When that knowledge discipline is key to your forward advancement—or central to your identity—that can be a deeply daunting reality.
Of course, different elephants may also present themselves at different times and in alternative circumstances that I cannot even come to appreciate right now. Such is the joy of living, striving and working towards the future. Ambition begets opportunity, and opportunity affords challenges. That is what gives life its flavour and spice, but too much at any one time can be truly overwhelming, as I acknowledged last time.
The question is what to do should you find yourself confronted with your own personal pachyderm. As I’ve already outlined, the first and most powerful step can simply be acknowledging it’s there. One of the significant challenges of problems deferred is that they grow in perceived size, oftentimes until they achieve elephantine proportions. Each of us has experienced the consequences of putting off something that we know needs to happen. Eventually you reach a point where the challenge seems so enormous and menacing that any possible progress seems impossible. And lo, a new elephant is born.
By naming and calling out the problem, you create an opportunity to do something about it. What that action actually is may not be clear. There might be many interconnected pathways and options, which may be exacerbating the problem. You might genuinely be uncertain about what you can do, or overcome by the complexity of picking apart the options and figuring out how they interrelate.
The best strategy forward is to simply start somewhere. Last week, for example, I started with what I thought was a viable approach to moving my personal project forward. I made a choice and started building out new content and structure for one of my web sites. After a couple of days of frustration—and dissatisfaction with where it got me—I recognized the limitations of continuing.
Stepping away and choosing a different path at that point means unwinding the investment of time that I had already expended. I could have muddled through, unwilling to re-do or re-work what I had done. Doing so would have resulted in a compromised solution that I wouldn’t have been happy with. In taking that path, I still learned a great deal; I gained clarity of the results that I wanted, and I also developed an appreciation for the limitations of the path that I had started on (that weren’t apparent to me before I did the work).
This leads to the next piece of advice: be open to changing your approach and shifting your perspective. Doing so requires a clear picture of what you are trying to do. It also means balancing that with a pragmatic view of what is actually possible. While it is a maxim that perfect is the enemy of the good, accepting compromise as good enough when it doesn’t meet your aspirations and goals is a potential recipe for future and further frustration.
In all instances, you should be open to recognizing when you are making progress. That may not be at the pace that you want. It may not feel as easy as you had hoped. You may come to realize that doing what you want and achieving the results that you aspire to will take more work, experimentation and exploration that you had anticipated or desired. That is the joy of working through life. That experience can be genuinely joyful if you start finding satisfaction in the process and stop obsessing exclusively on the outcomes.
You simply need to see the elephant, and recognize it for what it is.
Michael Hilbert says
At times, I believe, there are a whole herd of pachyderm rumbling around our work culture, our projects and our heads, simultaneously. Sometimes they are the same elephants, showing up in different places, other times they are loners stopping by for a quick drink. You are spot on that these magnificent beasts seldom retreat on their own. Introducing them, giving them a name and being careful not to trip on their trunks is key to moving forward. As you have said in the past, we can accept what we do as good, but we should always strive for better!
Thanks for the heart-warming and fun reflection on ourselves and our human tendencies.
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks so much, Mike. This is a great reflection and elaboration on the various ways our elephants present themselves (and a reminder that we sometimes see the same elephant in different situations and contexts).
Glad you enjoyed!