There is an elephant in my office. Its been there for ages, thought its only in the past few years that I’ve actually seen it. You have one, maybe more, where you work too. It’s time to talk about it.
Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.
Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way. Welcome to you, you’re in the right place. If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course, welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.
My wife bought me this picture of the elephant a few years ago. If you go to safetyontap.com/ep159 you can see what it looks like. Its on canvas, about 50×50 centimetres, or 20 inches. This elephant almost entirely fills the white canvas. There is no background. The ears of the elephant are huge, and take up probably a quarter of the whole canvas. The elephant is beautifully filled in, not with colour, but with a vast array of patterns making it look like a rich Indian henna tattoo.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Zoom, like you, during 2020. It is no accident that the elephant in my office is always in the background of my video for everyone to see. I spend my time working with individuals, teams and organisations supporting their performance improvement by improving how they go about learning.
The elephant in the room is an English idiom, or figure of speech, which is used to describe when there is a problem, issue or challenge, which is so big, but also obvious or many people know about it, but don’t want to talk about or address it.
Anyone who has been remotely near an elephant knows that it’s almost impossible to ignore it, even small elephants are imposing because of their weight, their size, their tusks, their long and powerful trunk and huge ears.
You can’t miss an elephant.
But when we, as a group like a team, or an entire organisation, ignore an elephant in the room, things don’t go well. Maybe not straight away, but when there is an elephant in the room, it might start to move around. It might stomp on things, crushing objects in its path. Elephants swing their trunks and heads around, swatting anything in the way. Elephants can also move surprisingly fast, so one minute they are there in the corner quietly ignored, the next minute they’ve rampaged straight through the wall.
What kinds of elephants am I talking about? Here’s a few examples most of us can identify with.
Elephants most of us have seen
In most first world countries in the peak of the pandemic, the spread of the virus has accelerated via healthcare workers. The very people we have been so dependent on to look after us, have been put at unnecessary risk by their employers, by the government, and the system, being exposed to this risk without adequate controls, and all the important people knew this. Massive elephant in the room.
For years and years, an elephant in the room for hospitality workers was passive exposure to cigarette smoke.
Exposure to silica based dusts in the building, construction and manufactured stone industries has for those industries been an elephant in the room.
Teen pregnancy and abortions are frequently elephants in the room. So often is homosexuality. Or the death of someone close. Or a mental illness. Or heavy drinkers. Or toxic people or bullies at school or at work.
We all know it’s there or it’s happened, and no one is going to remotely go near acknowledging it, talking about it, or tackling it.
And we have our own special kinds of elephants in the room which we share in common amongst us.
The overproduction of bureaucratic things in the name of safety, that’s well and truly an elephant in the room for most of us.
Where we seek so desperately to deliver great services to our organisation, but we can’t clearly articulate what those services actually are.
That we so indignantly assert we are a profession, but we do not practice according to a consistent body of knowledge let alone much at all based in evidence.
Or, when we can articulate our service offering to the organisation, but when we have no idea what the people we seek to serve with those services, think about our services.
This is why I have an actual elephant in my room
The elephant picture in my room is a two pronged reminder. in my room is a two pronged reminder.
First, it reminds me that in the work I do enabling better learning, I need to always be thinking to myself “is there something here that other people can see obviously, but I’m not seeing?”
And second, it reminds me that amazing performance improvement can happen, in the process of coaching a leader or a group, or a learning team, by helping whoever is involved to see previously unseen elephants, and to do something about these ridiculously obvious and important things.
There are very good reasons why elephants remain in the room without any notice. Actually, I misspoke. Where there is an elephant, many people do know it is there, but don’t mention it or do anything about it.
This is the crazy irony about the elephant in the room.
It is so enormous that it is inconceivable that it could be ignored.
Yet even the most imposing elephants are ignored, all the time, sometimes for ages.
So let’s quickly breakdown why that could be. There are lots of reasons which is why this takes time during coaching to dissect, but this is a starting point for you.
There are often apparently logical and rational reasons why elephants get ignored. They are put in the too hard basket, or the can’t deal with this now basket. These elephants come with stories attached, because the rational do-nothing decision is come from one or a few people, and the group assumes the story associated with that decision.
There can be discomfort, or embarrassment about the elephant, which makes it socially easier to NOT do something about it.
Or it might be fear. Fear of being wrong. Or culpable. Or weak. Or incompetent.
And it’s unlikely to be what most people call the bystander effect – the idea that the greater number of people who are in a situation and see something that needs attention or action, the less chance there is that any one of them will do anything.
Because there is plenty of research that suggest the bystander effect isn’t real, or at least a strong as was purported in the research that followed the Kitty Genovese case.
My experience with elephants in the room, is that many people ignore the elephant, maybe most people, but not all people. By now, I’m sure that you are nodding and saying to yourself, YES Andrew, I see the elephants and no one else does! But it’s just as likely there are elephants in your room that everyone else sees, and you don’t, or see and haven’t done anything about.
And therein lies the secret to tackling any elephant out the door.
There is a reason why most people ignore the elephant. Just because you see the elephant, doesn’t mean jumping around and shouting about it will magically make everyone say ‘yes, of course, I see it and let’s do something about it.
Because it won’t.
Elephants in the room are not perceptual problems. Better vision or hearing will not help.
You need to seek to understand why people are not talking about or addressing the elephant in the room.
And then, you’ve got yourself a chance to make a change.
Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way? Seeya!
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