May 30, 2023

How to manage the elephant in the room: tips for handling difficult situations

It is very likely that you have come across an elephant in the middle of the room. It is also very likely that you have seen how everyone behaves as if they did not exist. But the elephant is huge, it occupies the entire office and is so noisy that even when teleworking it is noticeable. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to work effectively while you are still around.

If all this does not sound like anything to you, we want to clarify that it is a metaphor -an elephant in the room- to refer to a great problem that is not talked about. What isn't a metaphor is that it does exist, it is a very common reality in organizations: there are certain problems that are ignored, hidden or denied, benefiting absolutely no one! A very common example: there is aversion between two colleagues that affects their relationship, the work environment and the efficiency with which they work, but nobody mentions this hostility, nobody verbalizes it and, therefore, no decisions are made about it. . Finally, one of those two people (or both!) leaves the company or ends up being fired without giving any kind of explanation. Ring a bell? Other common cases: salary inequality, a leader who is destroying the motivation of an entire team, competition between departments or between colleagues from the same department... These situations occur in many organizations and are difficult to address because it is uncomfortable to bring them out. Lightly raise them and discuss them, but we must do it!


How to know if there is an elephant in the room? Symptoms:

When there's an elephant in the room, it's so obvious that even a new recruit is quick to spot it. These are some of the symptoms:

· Awkward silence : If there is a problem or a tense situation in the office, it is possible to perceive an awkward silence among the employees, nobody wants to take risks!

· Lack of communication: If people avoid talking about a particular topic or refuse to address it openly, there is not only an elephant in the room, there is also have an organizational culture problem.

· Tension in the environment : If there is a tense atmosphere, with evasive looks or expressions of discomfort, you have a clear indicator of the presence of an unresolved problem.

· Rumors and gossip: If rumors or gossip are circulating in the office about a topic but no one is willing to discuss it openly, you have a sign of an elephant in the room.

· Decreased productivity: When an unresolved problem affects the work environment, productivity may be affected. They may experience difficulty concentrating or doing work efficiently due to emotional stress.


How do you get the elephant out of the room to be able to continue with business?

Clearly not avoiding him, that's for sure. But we are going to give you more tips to get the elephant out of the room:

1. Acknowledge and identify the problem. The first step in handling a difficult situation at work is to make sure you are aware that there is a conflict. Don't ignore problems or wait for them to resolve themselves, it's not going to happen! Acknowledging and accepting the existence of the conflict is the first step to resolving it. The second, identify the problem and prepare for the conversation. Take some time to reflect on the situation and try to understand the root of the problem. Only then can you get to the next step and identify the key elements that you will have to evaluate.

2. Evaluate the Work Environment. In order to resolve a conflict, we need the vision of all the people in the organization. We also need to ask about the environment confidentially, to make sure they can give their input honestly and calmly, without the pressure you feel when you think the whole world will know what you've said. The key to saying goodbye to the elephant is accurately assessing the situation without prejudice or bias. Evaluating the work environment will help us to obtain a lot of data: what are the biggest conflicts in the company, what are the strengths we have, what the situation is like for each department and even knowing if there are areas that are feeding the elephant.

3. Communicate the problem. More often than not, something gets stuck or unchallenged because it is believed to be a threat or its effect on the team and its work is underestimated. Giving a name and sharing it opens the door to common learning and discussion with the people involved. This step requires you to describe your observations and evaluation results about what is impeding progress or what is causing us to have an elephant in the middle of the room.

4. Stay calm and professional, even if it gets very emotional. Yes, yes, we already know that this is very obvious, but you would be surprised by the number of people who are not capable of managing conflicts and conversations without taking it to the personal level. It is important to remember that difficult situations at work can often be emotionally charged. While it is important to acknowledge the other person's feelings, it is equally important to remain calm and professional. Avoid becoming defensive or reacting emotionally, as this can worsen the situation and make it more difficult to resolve. Take a deep breath, focus on the problem at hand, and respond calmly, this will help to defuse the situation and create a more productive conversation.

5. Work together on a solution and follow up on agreed actions. Once the problem has been discussed and a solution found, it is important to follow through with the agreed actions. This shows that there is a commitment to solving the problem and helps build trust. It is also important to talk to the people involved or affected to see how they feel and if the solution is working. If not, you will have to be open to review the problem and find a new solution together. Remember that difficult situations at work are often complex and may require ongoing communication and collaboration to fully resolve.

Organizations are made up of people (surprise), so we have to make very clear that these people are necessary and, another surprise, they are necessary to do things well. When you realize the presence of the elephant and its devastating effects on the well-being of the team, on their careers and on the business itself, there is only one option: make the elephant disappear. The very old school trick of keeping quiet waiting for it to go away alone (or for someone to leave the company), will only have one effect: allow others to define the voice and identity of your organization. Passivity also feeds the elephant.

The evaluation of the work environment provides a clear idea of how the work environment is perceived. Find out how the climate of your organization is now:

Work Climate Template