Trying to Contain an Elephant

Posted by on Sep 9, 2013 | 5 Comments


Stuff happens.  When you’re working to accomplish big things and you’re coordinating a million moving parts to make it happen – as most companies are – you can expect that once in awhile things are going to fall through the cracks.  Where the rubber meets the road is not at the point of the mistake, but how we deal with it.

I worked with a large, well-respected organization that had “stuff happen” during a recent project.  Someone who had left the company was supposed to do something that didn’t get done, a major ball was dropped that couldn’t be recovered and expectations weren’t met.  Messaging went out, case closed.  But anytime “stuff happens” and people are involved, there’s going to be emotion that is stirred up.  As we all know, emotion in the workplace makes people very uncomfortable.

One of my favorite analogies around this is in Heath Brothers’ Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.  Imagine our emotions are a 3-ton elephant, and our logic is like the guy riding on top the elephant – the elephant rider.  When the elephant and the rider want to go in the same direction, all is great.  However…when the elephant wants to go in a different direction than the rider…things get…shall we say…messy.  But what do we tend to do at work?  We pretend the elephant doesn’t even exist!  We ignore the big elephant, or try to minimize the elephant, doing our best to logic our way through the “stuff” that happens, and wonder why things aren’t resolved.  We approach the mess like it has no business being there – when it is the most natural thing in the world.

What I find interesting is a human being’s capacity for forgiveness when thing are being dealt with openly and honestly.  People will forgive most any mistake if we own it.  But confession alone is not enough.  People are still going to have feelings about what has taken place – whether we like it or not. And if we don’t want a huge mess on our hands, we have to deal with what is real.  We have to deal with the elephant.  When expectations aren’t met, there’s going to be sadness, frustration, disappointment, maybe even anger – that’s normal.  That’s human.

I was reading Seth Godin’s blog today and he addressed this from a customer-brand experience.  He talked about when “stuff happens” how our instinct is to tighten the controls.  And we do this all the time in our organizations.  When something happens that isn’t what we planned, we try to control the messaging about it, how the messaging is received, and what people are allowed to do with it.  But we can’t.  The tighter we control, the more the elephant fights back – and why wouldn’t it?

What if we could find a way to deal with “stuff” that happens from a place of compassion instead?  Recognizing that emotions are just part of being human.  Is it possible to create a safe place for emotions to be expressed in our organizations – without making them wrong – before they run amok?  Because trying to contain an elephant isn’t a fight we’re going to win.


©OnStage Leadership, 2013

If you found this helpful, interesting, thought-provoking, or inspiring please “recommend”, “Like” and share.  It is only through your generosity that we can reach those who may find it valuable too.  My sincere thanks.  Kimberly


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