The Elephant in the Room

by | Mar 7, 2023

Jill Mueller is a trainer, coach, and learning experience designer dedicated to helping people teams become high performing by being Thoughtfully Fit.



You could feel the elephant in the room.

Laura paced anxiously, scanning her colleagues’ faces for some kind of indication they were on her side.

“I don’t buy it,” exclaimed Laura. “Trust has always been strong in our organization. I trust every single person on this team. Something about this doesn’t add up.”

Laura was referring to the team diagnostic report they’d just received. Of the 14 team performance indicators, the team had scored lowest on trust – and by a significant margin.

Her statement left an awkward silence in the room. The elephant was right there.

Steve, a no-nonsense middle manager, was the first one to break it.

“I’ll say it,” began Steve, raising his head from the report to look Laura in the eye. “You can be intimidating sometimes. Heck, this entire team can be! I fear I’m going to disappoint people if I disagree. So it’s safer to keep my thoughts to myself.”

Not everyone thinks the same

Laura’s reaction to being confronted with the elephant in the room is one we see frequently when we coach teams. When people are emotionally invested in their work, there’s a tendency to think their view is the right one, or to assume everyone sees things in the same way.

But reality shows this isn’t always the case – especially when there’s an elephant in the room no-one wants to talk about. Sometimes, different team members can perceive the same problem in very different ways.

To illustrate this point further, let me share an old parable that originated in India and was translated to English in the 19th century. There are now many versions of this tale.

Blind Men and An Elephant

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day they learned there was an elephant visiting the village. They had no idea what an elephant was. So they decided, even though they couldn’t see it, they’d go check it out. All of them went and touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! It’s like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“What are you talking about? It’s like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man touching the trunk of the elephant.

“I don’t know what you all are touching, it’s nothing like that at all. It’s like a big gentle fan,” said the fourth man as he touched the ear.

“Um, no. It’s like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“Wait a minute, are you all insane? It’s long and sharp like a spear,” said the sixth man as he touched one of the tusks.

Seeing the whole elephant

Here’s the thing about this story: although they ended up in an argument and disagreeing with each other, all six were correct!

They each tried to convince the others their view of the elephant was the right one. But the truth was simple: they were all right in describing their own experience.

We see this all the time when we’re coaching teams.

One of the tenets of team coaching is that every team member is right, at least partially. So our goal in coaching is not to persuade certain team members that their colleagues are more right than them. It’s about getting the entire team to understand the bigger picture – so that everyone sees the whole elephant, not just the one ear that they happen to be most aware of. In the process, everyone better understands each other’s view of the situation.

By voicing diverse perspectives, teams can ensure that everyone feels heard, putting them in a better position to design the actions they want to take moving forward. Instead of advocating for their position (a win-lose approach), they get curious and have more patience to find the common ground and achieve alignment (a more balanced win-win approach).

Core workout

If you want to bring this kind of Balance to your team, try the following core workout this week:One-minute-workout

  • Pause: When someone shares their view of the elephant with you, take a moment to notice what you’re feeling.
  • Think: What is their perspective? How is their experience different from yours? Remember that you don’t want to get into a conversation about right and wrong here. Rather create new awareness.
  • Act: Ask curious questions that develop your understanding of your colleague’s perspective.

As for Laura, Steve, and the rest of the team, we used this powerful example — of the varying degrees of trust they were feeling — to explore all of the different views of the elephant. The elephant is always in the room, but teams don’t always see it or want to see it.

One of the reasons teams often choose to work with us is because they need help creating a safe environment to courageously name their elephants. And we love working with the teams who are brave enough to explore and tackle their elephants because it has a tremendous positive impact on the overall performance of the team.

What might be different for your team if you confronted your elephants?

2 minute quiz