Don’t let elephants trample your teams
Are you observant? You are? Then how good are you at spotting the elephant in the room? Because it’s there – that obvious problem or difficult situation that your people are choosing to ignore.
That’s the topic I discussed with Jocelyn Darbroudi, chief information officer at HR service provider Securex. What does she think are some of the elephants in the boardroom that impact on people, organisation and society?
“You’ve got to start by understanding what kind of elephants we’re talking about and the underlying assumptions creating them,” says Jocelyn. “Sometimes it’s just a perception – a shadow of a mouse that everyone thinks is an elephant. That’s one of the easy ones. You can identify it, you can address it, and it will disappear and everyone can have a good laugh about it.”
For example? “Many people assume that, when you’re talking to your superiors, you shouldn’t disagree with them,” says Jocelyn. But holding back a contradictory viewpoint “creates a wall” and prevents constructive conversation.
“If you treat your boss as a human being you will realise they are interested to know, they want to learn,” she says.
That’s definitely the approach we take at Stellar Labs, and we apply it to our conversations with clients. I read recently that some suppliers don’t feel they should challenge their clients. But as a supplier myself, I believe that’s partly what I’m paid for. You tell me you want X, but I know you’d get better results with Y. If you’re paying for my expertise, I’m not going to withhold that from you.
“Exactly,” says Jocelyn. “It’s really important to get past those assumptions.” And what about the bigger elephants, the ones that present more of a challenge? Discrimination and climate change top Jocelyn’s list. Both sizeable beasts that impact everybody and every business. According to Jocelyn, many people are only “pretending” to do something about them.
“I intentionally use the word ‘pretending’ because we’re not addressing the root causes. It’s too much on the surface. People create the perception they’ve corrected their behaviour, and we’re happy with that; the pretence is enough for us to have addressed the issue. But we need to go deeper. Behaviour is a result of a system,” says Jocelyn.
And if you don’t address the system, she says, that behaviour will repeat. To change our behaviour, we must change our attitude and our mindset.
“If we address the system and the behaviour, it will speed up the process,” says Jocelyn. “And if you go one level deeper and ask the ‘why’ questions, then you come into the mental models.”
Jocelyn cites the assumption shared by some men that women cannot lead. “You ask a man to behave differently, so he hires a couple of women,” she says. But then he expects them to conform to his mental stereotype and “follow when the man nods. So the real problem is not being addressed and hasn’t been solved,” says Jocelyn.
To address this issue, you’d need to ask what is leadership? What does leadership look like? Clearly, women can lead, but they may choose a different way of doing it. By asking people to make choices about what leadership behaviours are appropriate, you can address your definition of leadership. And that may change your perceptions about being an effective leader.
Part of a leader’s role is to create an environment of trust. Dealing with ‘elephants’ is a great way to measure the level of trust in a team. “If you have dealt with at least one elephant in that team, it’s an indication you’re building trust,” says Jocelyn. “How you discussed the elephant, how you dealt with the elephant, what you learnt from it, and then how you destroyed that elephant. Do it properly and teamwork improves.”
So if you want to avoid elephants trampling over your teams and your business strategies, create a culture of openness. In a safe environment where people can share their thoughts and their questions, there’s nowhere left for elephants to hide.