The Elephant in the Room
How Listening to ‘The Elephant in the Room’ Can Make Work Really Work

We have a standing agenda item called ‘The Elephant in the Room’ at one of the regular Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Council meetings I attend. This agenda item has been a game-changing addition to the way the leaders of this company embed diversity and inclusion in everyday ways of working.

The Elephant in the Room was the brainchild of the CEO who wanted to make sure he could hear what he needed to hear, not just what people thought he wanted to hear at our monthly D&I Council meetings. He wanted to ensure that leaders at every level in the organisation had a regular way to tune into what was really happening in their workplaces. So as a group, we regularly tune in and listen to unfiltered, no B.S., no recriminations updates about the workplace from the people who are actually in the workplace on a day-to-day basis.

Listening to ‘The Elephant in the Room’

Sometimes when the elephant in the room feedback is shared, it can be very hard to hear. Sometimes it is very heartwarming. Sometimes it is infuriating. But every single month, someone from the workplace will bravely step up and say hey, you need to pay attention to this.

People from the workplace know that this is a safe space to call out ‘the elephant in the room’. And everyone from the CEO down pays attention because they know that the information and feedback shared means they can get super focused and intentional about getting the (right) shit done for a respectful and inclusive workplace. A workplace that really works for the people in it. Radical hey?

The key to the success of the Elephant in the Room is that this is about leaders listening. Then reflecting. Then take action. In that order!

Listening is not waiting to speak

I have observed leaders (and am guilty of it myself) of listening and then going into solution mode without reflecting on what it is that I heard and learned. Many wise people have used this quote (including my Nana!) which is the guiding principle for leaders who really want to listen to learn.

Hearing what you need to hear

I remember Sheila Flavell, COO of FDM Group lamenting one of the greatest challenges for executive leaders when I interviewed her for my Lead to Soar podcast. Sheila said she had to find a way to get people to tell her what she really needed to know about her business, not what she wanted to hear.

This is where a process like ‘The Elephant in the Room’ as a standing agenda item is crucial. As is focussing on creating emotional and psychological safety at work. A psychologically safe workplace is:

“the shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” 

Amy Edmondson,
Professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School

Find out if there is an ‘Elephant in the Room’ in your workplace

To find out whether there is an elephant in the room in your workplace, consider these 5 questions:

  1. What is left unspoken in your workplace?
  2. What or who doesn’t get called out or called in?
  3. What should you know more about when it comes to your people and their lived experience in their workplace? 
  4. What and where are the systemic barriers in your workplace that prevent women and other under-represented people from reaching their full potential?
  5. Are you listening to your people, more often, so you can better understand their lived experience at work?  

If you want to create a process so that every leader at every level in the organisation can tune into what is really happening in the workplace, then consider how you might get people to talk about the elephant in the room. Get in touch with me if you want to chat with me about  “The Elephant in the Room” and creating a listening culture. 

About Michelle

Michelle Redfern founder of Advancing Women in Business and Sport