leadership, productivity

The Elephant No One Wants to Talk About

By Asa Beavers

Running an effective meeting is like having a really good meal.

You know the sensation when you’ve had a really good meal. The same goes for when you’ve conducted a really effective meeting. You feel satisfied with the experience.

Yet, even when you think you’re getting it right, there’s still something that can CRUSH your ability to consistently have effective meetings. It’s known as the “elephant in the room.”

You’ve probably heard the phrase before, but may not know its meaning: The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first recorded use of the phrase as a simile in The New York Times on June 20, 1959:

“Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”

Basically, the elephant is an obvious problem or difficult situation people don’t want to talk about because the discussion is considered to be difficult or uncomfortable.

What’s an elephant look like?

Elephants can take on these 3 different forms in the context of having effective meetings:

1. You: The elephant in the room others might not want to discuss is how poorly run your meetings can be. If you feel like meetings can be a waste of time, you are emitting those vibes and your participants are feeling them. When you conduct this kind of meeting – or have meetings for the sake of having meetings – they become tedious, dry, and uninspiring. Since they aren’t contributing to business success, you might as well not have them at all. The elephant here could be your meetings suck, and no one’s telling you.

2. Your Team: Another elephant in the room might be a participant who doesn’t know they are in the ‘hot seat’ for one reason or another. It could be an individual underperforming in their job and everyone knows about it except the individual. Similarly, it could be a participant having personal issues others know about but aren’t supposed to. The elephant here is others talking in hushed tones and under their breath or speaking in code during meetings so as to not break the secret. 

3. Leadership: Or it could very well be the owner of the business, a highly respected founder holding a tight grip to the business he spent a lifetime building. In these meetings, ideas are openly shared, but the final say-so typically rests with the opinion of the senior leader. Participants may feel involved but certainly not empowered, and soon they choose to disengage. The elephant in the room is the senior leader not allowing or trusting the management team to make important decisions affecting them or their teams.

How to conduct effective meetings, elephant free:

First, develop your mindset around having effective meetings instead of having meetings for the sake of meeting. Determine the type of meetings that best serve your business needs, set an agenda for each type of meeting, and stay within a prescribed timeframe.
Acknowledge with the participants when a meeting is productive to encourage more of the same. And remember, it’s kind of like having a really good meal; you want more just like that!
Depending on the type of ‘elephant’, you as the leader must encourage open, honest communication and feedback. Business leaders must use questions to mine for constructive conflict instead of avoiding tension created by uncomfortable conversations.
When you prepare for your meetings you have the ability to ask open-ended questions. This keeps people engaged, leads to more passionate discussion, and ultimately to better decisions.
Finally, you must avoid cooking up a meeting stew. This is what Patrick Lencioni describes in his book Death By Meeting as throwing every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting. In the effort to not waste time, these meetings become a complete waste of time.
By packing every conceivable topic into a single meeting participants are either overwhelmed or shut down. In the end, the main topic, the reason for calling the meeting, is forgotten, over-shadowed, or watered-down.
Cooking-up meeting stew may have checked off a lot of boxes, but that doesn’t mean it was effective.

This is probably the best advice one can receive:

It comes from the author of The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch, who after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer gave an upbeat lecture from his podium at Carnegie Mellon University. The lecture became a popular YouTube video and lead to the book.“When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce him”. ~ Randy Pausch

Don’t let elephants crush your meetings and make them ineffective.  Call them out.  Make sure you keep evolving your meetings to keep them from going stale.

When you get this right you will be having meetings where each has its own purpose, where engagement is strong, and participants feel empowered to speak freely and make decisions affecting their teams. Having effective meetings is a business essential every successful business leader must master.