Uncovering Hidden Elephants in Six Easy Steps

One of the skills that defines top leaders is their ability to surface the “undiscussables” – the hidden elephants that people really want to talk about but fear that revealing them out loud will have negative consequences.

Hierarchies make uncovering hidden elephants difficult

An unfortunate consequence of our hierarchical organizations is that employees will not speak their minds completely – ever. Leaders who are in a position of managerial power must work particularly hard at surfacing new ideas and potential problems that others see but leaders may not.

Its also not unusual for a leader to believe that others are not telling them everything. (“Gasp! You mean that even though I’m a wonderful leader and a great person, people will not be completely honest with me?” – Yes).

Six Easy Steps

Unless a leader is deliberate about creating safety for important dialog to occur, they will not hear what is important to them and their organization. How can a leader create safety? Consider the following steps:

  1. Examine Your Intention for Honest, Open Discussion: Examining your motives for a discussion is a great way to prepare. Do you really want to hear the truth or would you rather just confirm what you already know or believe? If it is the latter, that is a different kind of discussion.
  2. Listen with Intensity: You can’t hear honest ideas and opinions if you’re talking and spouting your opinions. In fact, chances are that you’ll shut down the conversation completely by using these tactics.
  3. Ask Questions: Open ended questions that delve deeply into the topic being discussed will show that you are interested and willing to consider what is being said. Other types of questions (closed “yes/no”, and “leading” questions) have a place, but not in an “uncovering hidden elephants” conversation.
  4. Acknowledge the Answers: When others are willing to talk about the elephants, acknowledge and thank them. This doesn’t happen often, and people are putting themselves on the line for you and the organization. For goodness sake, the right thing to do is to say “thank you”.
  5. Use The Best Ideas and Take Action on the Problems: You must be willing to do something about what you’ve heard. If you don’t, people won’t take the risk to speak up again. If you find that some of the ideas and problems are not actionable, let the people you spoke with know that but be careful not to stifle the conversation by saying “no” to to many things.
  6. Assure That There Aren’t Negative Consequences to the Surfaced Elephants: Revealing confidences inappropriately or chastising the individuals who spoke up will also prevent them from speaking up again later. They need to trust that these things won’t happen in order for you to count on them to uncover new elephants later.

    Now that isn’t so hard……is it?

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.