Name the Elephant (or Kill the Lion)

Think of your organization as a pride of lions – powerful and in command, with outstanding collaboration skills. Almost nothing can stop you…except an elephant.

Lions face few risks at the hands of other animals in the wild. Yet they can sustain life-threatening injuries – or even death – at the hands of a raging elephant.

Every team and organization has its elephants. Not the literal beast, but the figurative one.

Will this management strategy really work? Why are we sticking with this inefficient process? Is this person truly the right fit for our team?

These are the conversations individuals, teams and companies don’t want to have. These are the proverbial ‘Elephants in the Room.’

We’ve all seen the team that won’t proactively confront its manager about an ill-fated strategy. We’ve heard of the leadership group that won’t challenge its CEO. And we’ve been in a relationship where it feels too risky to get real.

What happens in the wild when lions don’t pay close attention to elephants? They risk serious injury, or even death.

The same is true in today’s increasingly complex, innovative and fast paced workplace. What is left unsaid is often what sinks the best teams, strategies and organizations. Authentic conversations that name elephants, on the other hand, help teams to build trust, avoid mistakes and achieve greater results.

How do we overcome our natural fear of elephants and learn to leverage their mighty power instead? Try these four strategies:

Insist on Psychological Safety

It’s up to every team member – and especially leaders and managers – to ensure that all voices are heard and all views respected. That doesn’t mean everyone should agree with everyone else. Quite the contrary - it means encouraging a safe space for expression of diverse and often conflicting views. Do that by agreeing to communication ground rules that encourage participation, inviting less expressive team members to share their points of view and stepping in to protect those in the minority from scorn or abuse.

Run an Anonymous Assessment

Want to know what people really think? Run an anonymous assessment to measure basic indicators of team health, including the ability to get real, challenge others and give critical feedback. We like The Table Group’s on-line team assessment, based on Patrick Lencioni’s ‘The Five Disfunctions of a Team.’

Train in Communication

In our work with organizations including Pinterest, Cirrus Logic, the ClimateWorks Foundation and others, the desire to have more open conversations nearly always comes out as a top organizational goal. Visit The People Piece website to learn more about how we teach leaders, managers, employees and teams to have difficult conversations that are productive and authentic.

Model the Way

If naming elephants helps take away their power, the most powerful thing any leader – or team member – can do is to take the risk and model the way. Help your peers, reports and managers see for themselves that difficult conversations won’t kill anyone. In fact, they will lead to stronger relationships, less mistakes and better results.


In the wild, successful lions pay close attention to elephants. The same goes for successful teams. Take the risk to have those difficult conversations, and encourage and enable other team members to do the same. We think you will see better ideas, less mistakes and stronger relationships.