How to Wrestle an Elephant and Win


Ever heard the expression “an elephant in the room”? It’s something that everyone knows exists but no one wants to acknowledge because dealing with it is too difficult or painful. It could be an issue, a decision, an office policy or even someone’s character trait. “Elephants” exist wherever people interact in an organized and dynamic fashion – companies, volunteer boards, associations, even groups of friends and families. If you’re running a business, chances are you’ve got elephant issues. The trick is knowing how and when to deal with them. Avoiding them won’t make them go away and, if anything, only makes them worse.

This week, I was working with a client on a strategic direction for their brand and product portfolio. It soon became obvious that a decision to change packaging seven years ago had created confusion in the market for their brand while conflicting with their core identity. We worked for two hours on other solutions and possible fixes, but the real question that needed answering was “Can – and should – we change packaging again?” While it seemed to be the right solution, it was an expensive and difficult one to undertake. I also pointed out that if something is holding you back from true market success, is it really worth it?

What if the owner of a company is deeply committed to a plan that’s ultimately hurting business? Teams can spend a lot of time and energy fixing the symptoms of this kind of decision that typically just masks the true problem. An organization might have a rock star employee who is toxic to the culture. No one wants them to leave because they contribute to company results but, at the same time, having them around is eroding culture which leads to higher turnover and non-productive employees. Is it worth it to deal with these issues? How do you address the elephant in the room?

The short answer to the first question is a resounding yes, it is worth it. To the second question, I say this, “Put on your big boy/big girl pants and deal with it.” Okay, I know it’s not that simple but hear me out. In many cases, the upside of addressing the elephant in the room is difficult to predict. It’s also difficult to pinpoint the exact issue as there may be contributing factors. So if we go back to our examples above, you might wonder if changing the packaging really addresses the bigger issue? And is a company really experiencing poor results from an employee that’s just not fitting in? Thing is, you’ll never know until you get to the heart of the matter and figure out what’s wrong.

So how do you wrestle with elephant issues? Tackle them with the one-two punch of teamwork and courage.

Teamwork – I don’t know about you, but if I tried to actually wrestle an elephant on my own, I’d get crushed. It’s the same with elephant issues. You need to bring together people who not only help uncover those issues but can also help you implement solutions. The group has to recognize the problem together and agree that it’s worth wrestling. This cannot be a top-down exercise and it’s where consultants are really worth their pay as they have an objective view that enables them to ask hard questions and gain group consensus.

Courage – Fear is real and holds us back from doing the hard but necessary things in life. Some of us are afraid of what others might think or we fear failure or the unknown. The key is to focus on the vision of what could be if this elephant issue didn’t exist. Imagine what life would be like and feel the emotion that this would bring to you and your team. Once the head and heart are connected and aligned, the commitment to resolve the issue will follow. It’s not easy, which is why having the courage to move forward in spite of your fear is necessary.

Every issue, whether big or small, is an opportunity for us – as leaders – to lean in, step up and take charge. It takes courage and teamwork to wrestle with the big issues – the elephants in the room – but that’s what it takes to achieve big results.