Sometimes the Leader Must Address the Elephant in the Room

As awkward as it might be...

Years ago I was serving on a team where there was a consistent idea killer. Whenever anyone on the team presented an idea, regardless of the idea’s merit, this person would shoot it down. He always saw the glass as half empty and was negative about everything.

It’s okay to have someone who asks questions to make things better. We actually should encourage these people, but this guy was a doomsayer in the room. He never saw any positive in anything – regardless of the conversation. We would be brainstorming and he would kill the momentum. Just when everyone thought we had a good plan in place, he would poke more holes in it. He never had new ideas to improve things. He simply didn’t like anyone else’s idea. It wasn’t helpful. It was actually disruptive.

As anoying as it was, leadership allowed it to continue. Everyone talked about it outside of meetings, no one respected the idea killer, and even the leader admitted it was a problem for the team. Our senior leader insisted he had counseled with this person privately, yet it never seemed to improve.

It led me to a conclusion I have selectively practiced in leadership:

Sometimes, as a leader, you have to address the “elephant in the room” – in the room.

Everyone knows it’s there.

You can’t miss an elephant.

It keeps being repeated.

You’ve handled it individually.

Nothing has changed.

It may even be getting worse.

At some point, the leader has to address the elephant in the room.

You can’t ignore the elephant. Elephants take up a lot of valuable space in the room.

While everyone is in the room, address the elephant.

You may have to call out the person causing the disruption in the presence of everyone else in the room.

Yes, it’s hard, uncomfortable, and you don’t want to do it often – and never until you have attempted to handle it privately, but it may be necessary to continue leading the team well.

If you don’t:

  • Everyone will assume this type performance is tolerated.
  • The negative actions will be copied by others.
  • Team dynamics will never be healthy.
  • Respect for the leader – with this issue and others – will diminish.

Leader, when you know in your gut it’s time – address the elephant!

You must. The best excuses won’t hide an elephant. And, elephants don’t often leave the room on their own.

Have you ever served on a team where the elephant wasn’t addressed and it negatively impacted the team?

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6 thoughts on “Sometimes the Leader Must Address the Elephant in the Room

  1. They can be converted. Its difficult but possible.

    Yes, I was on a leader on a team with someone like you're speaking about. Every time we tried to schedule an event, meeting, discussion…anything, she would immediately object to the date, she "was busy," "that doesn't work for me," "I can't be there then." Then the whole team would struggle with dates and finally give up on the item. I spoke with her about not being the first to speak; about letting an event happen without her; About whether she was so over committed that maybe she needed her time back. Nothing seemed to work until–and this was stunning–she spent 3 months temporarily filling in for the chair, and it was her responsibility to get something done.

  2. As a leader, that's the thing I struggle with most. I agree with all your points about how important it is to address the elephant in front of the others. I often have to tell the conflict averse part of me to just chill out while we deal with some conflict.

    Have you ever served on a team where the idea killer in the room is the leader? That's something our team is going through now. It's a very difficult situation for sure.