Sunday, July 8, 2012

Is that an elephant that I see?

Elephants are big people. In fact, you would not want one to sit on your sandwich.  You would think an elephant is too big to ignore. But there are zillions of elephants, everywhere you look, but we pretend they’re not there: it’s the elephant in the room phenomenon.

In families, elephants in the room range from the worst kind, such as family incest, to the more harmless (except to her) cupboard drinking of Aunt Mildred.  Everyone knows what is happening, in the case of incest it may even be the mother, but often no-one speaks up or takes action. Humans are even reluctant to say anything about relatively small matters such as offensive or antisocial behaviour, being let down by a friend or that what someone is doing might in fact be a poor choice: what I call the ‘zit on the nose’ phenomenon. We just don’t like to tell people bad things.

It takes courage to act. Largely, humans dislike conflict mainly because it creates a huge amount of anxiety, which is extremely uncomfortable and to be avoided at all costs. There is also the fall out that might involve fractured relationships, being disliked and rejection. We like to be liked or as Albert Ellis says, we are love slobs. Better to remain in the inner circle with a nasty secret that being a pariah and morally or ethically intact. After all, it is family.

Elephants love living in organisations too where they are ignored with an even greater intensity than in families. You’d think it was the other way around given the emotional factor in a family setting but it is likely that there are huge emotional investments in the organisations in which we work and play.

Again, there is a huge range when it comes to severity and impact. There are organisations in which there is institutionalised corruption and bullying, for example, that goes on unchecked. In some cases the organisations acknowledge that there is a problem, such as paedophilia in the Catholic Church and bullying in the Australian defence forces, but still nothing is done. Its as if the elephant has been let out in the garden for feeding time.

Poor behaviour is one of the more common elephants in the room. Here I am not referring to poor performance, which often gets picked up at performance review time but to what amounts to anti-social behaviour. Every organisation or organisational unit has at least one person who behaves in ways that causes reactions from mild irritation to motional catharsis.

This is an even bigger problem when the person is a manager. You might find, for example, a very senior person is a dreadful bully but he is allowed to get away with it. The result is a culture of bullying that runs right through the organisation. People are, understandably, reluctant to speak up and people who do in fact blow the whistle on high level abuse or corruption do not have a good time if it, as the research on whistle-blowers shows.

We might think that, well, if its not a big thing then let it go. So what if the boss or someone else in the team tells lies, doesn’t keep promises, doesn’t listen, fails to communicate information, gets a little irritated, ignores people, is not a team player or is just plain rude. It doesn’t matter.

Well, it does, Employee engagement is a critical factor in job satisfaction and, we know that both these effect performance. Employees can easily become disengaged by elephants in the room. They sap motivation, destroy loyalty, disintegrate faith and hope, distinguish innovation and create a culture of mistrust. Elephants in teams can completely undermine effectiveness.

When we let someone get away with poor behaviour we being a co-dependent. We are implicitly saying that all is fine, that we approve and the behaviour will continue. And we’ll complain: a co-dependent victim.

All it takes is courage.