Elephants in the workplace – How to approach tough conversations without crushing your culture

Blog Posts - Jun 5, 2017

Willa Huley
Leadership & Culture

When’s the last time you called someone out? Here’s a better question: When was the last time you called someone out in the workplace? Unless you’re a one-person business, you have been or will be in a situation where you need to confront a coworker on their performance or behavior. They’re called crucial conversations for a reason — no matter your role, it’s vitally important that you are comfortable and adept at engaging in them.

Now, what does any of this have to do with elephants? The so-called “elephant in the room” is the topic that is on everyone’s mind but isn’t being discussed. Everyone feels its presence, but no one is willing to address it. A workplace culture that lacks transparency welcomes these elephants in on a regular basis. There’s probably a meeting room at your work that houses an elephant or two depending on who is in the room.

You might be thinking, “I know where she’s going with this. If you call someone out, that addresses the elephant in the room.” It seems like common sense, but in practice, the outcome can actually create more elephants that are even harder to move out the door. That’s because there’s a three-letter word corrupting your intentions. That word is “out.”

At Think Shift, we are encouraged to call each other “up,” not “out”.

Let’s say you’re in a meeting and someone begins speaking over others, interrupting and dismissing some of the suggestions. Let’s call this person Frank. I’m sure we can all think of someone who reminds us of Frank. If we accept that ignoring the behavior is not an option, then there are two options for you to approach this situation as a culture leader.

The first option is to confront Frank and tell him that this behavior needs to stop. But what would happen if, instead, you approached Frank and explained how you interpreted his behavior, then offered your assistance to address it moving forward?

In the first option, you’re calling Frank out with the intent, conscious or not, of making him feel that he was wrong in his actions. All responsibility falls upon Frank to make that correction. This is where elephants like to hide. Frank may feel attacked and resentful but not be forthcoming in his response because he feels forced into a defensive position. The lines of communication are closed and an elephant officially enters the room.

The unfortunate side effect of this choice is that you have now downgraded your ability to lead.

Your approach was not an attempt to collaborate or find mutual understanding. It was an attempt to correct the situation by laying blame, forcing Frank to either fight back or retreat. It’s a lose-lose situation because no one learns from the experience.

When you choose the second option and call someone up, you come with an open heart and the intent to elevate someone to a higher ground. It’s a request for collaboration between yourself and the other person. There’s opportunity to provide input, understand the situation and consequences, and offer solutions for change. It’s the best possible way to create a win-win situation where people can learn from one another and move forward together.

When we call people out, there’s a selfish satisfaction we achieve.

We effectively remove our responsibility from the equation and place it on another. If we want to contribute to a healthy corporate culture, we need to understand the side effects of this choice and do everything we can to call people up, collaborate and foster an environment of understanding, lest the room fill up with elephants.

If you’d like more tips on how to approach tough conversations with coworkers, watch this video from Think Shift Chairman, Balaji Krishnamurthy.