Taming the elephant



Everybody has heard the expression “the elephant in the room” used in one context or another. For those in the dark, the “elephant” is an issue or unpleasant topic that everybody knows about but refuses to acknowledge or discuss.

In the business world, the “elephant” is often an unwelcome guest at meetings when a project is in jeopardy; it is the ugly truth that needs to be said the most but is most vehemently ignored. The whole idea behind the elephant is paradoxical in nature—if something is so vital to a project's success, then why would anyone purposely not talk about it? The answer is simple: human beings are wired a certain way; we do not like to discuss unsavory topics out of fear of hurting others (or ourselves), and we shy away from any behavior that might make us look bad.

This truth does not make us bad people; it is all a matter of basic human nature. Although ignorance may be bliss, there are very clear consequences that come with refusing to face negative news when working on a project. Things tend to spiral out of control very quickly when a problem is ignored. After all, remaining silent about an issue does not make it go away, and bad news is not like fine wine—it does not grow better with age. No matter how daunting of a task, it is always better to discuss all aspects of a project openly and honestly, including the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

This paper will provide you with the skills and tools you need to “tame the elephant” in the room and unlock the unimagined resolution and possibilities that come with open and honest communication. First, you will learn to identify the source of resistance to open communication within your project, as well as a proven methodology for addressing these tough “elephant” issues. Additionally, you will learn how to properly handle being on both the receiving and giving end of bad news with training in the art and applications of generous listening and straight talk delivery.

Taming the Elephant

Scary things happen when we make big promises, which is why most of us shy away from it. We have all, at some point or another, made a big promise or taken on a big commitment, and usually very early on we realized how risky of a position we had put ourselves in.

Making promises is not a risky venture because we are not capable of fulfilling them, but because we have the potential to fail and make ourselves look bad, bringing on a great deal of pain and embarrassment. Making a big promise and putting yourself at risk forces you into a vulnerable position; if you make good on your commitment, you can achieve something extraordinary, but if you do not, you fear your credibility will melt quicker than a chocolate bar on a Texas summer day.

For most people, the opportunity cost of these potential “extraordinary results” is just too high, and we instead “bet the favorites” and play it safe. We make only reasonable promises and are very careful with our word because it is far easier to take on things we can control and virtually guarantee, than to potentially look bad, or even worse, have our peers watch us fail. Once we have this under control and we have managed to eliminate any possibility of failure, we can go about our business with little to no fear of disappointment or embarrassment.

At Leadera, we call this “business as usual,” and if your company operates at this level, you can expect no changes to occur and no advancement to be made. “Business as usual” is just fine, and most of the time operating at this pace is not necessarily a bad thing; it is simply stagnant.


Accomplishing something amazing, on the other hand, is another matter entirely – it requires different thinking, different speaking, and different actions. It requires what we call being EXTRAORDINARY. And to achieve the extraordinary, one must be bold and willing to take great risks. However, the problem, as we mentioned above, is that doing something outstanding invites in the risk and the likelihood of failure, and failure invites in the potential to look bad.

The safer bet is to only promise things that you have line of sight to achieve – things you can control and feel secure in. Our work with clients leads us to the other kind of thinking—BREAKTHROUGH THINKING.

Big visions require big promises. The bigger you play, the greater the risk and the higher the likelihood of failure. It is not for everyone, and it is anything but commonplace. However the rewards are great and the level of satisfaction and fulfillment is even greater. Playing this game involves making commitments that sometimes seem impossible, but they ARE ACHEIVABLE if those who make them are willing to operate outside the norm.

Scorecard as a Map for Success

Nearly magical results can be achieved when a project manager or someone on the team is willing to deal with the scorecard, not as a source of dread or guilt, but like it is a map for success meant to keep the project on track. They must adjust their way of operating from “business as usual” to striving towards the extraordinary.

They also have to be willing to address matters in a different way than they might be used to. This also involves how they deal with the inevitable issues that arise during the execution of a project. They must be willing to be adaptable, patient, and, most importantly, constantly in line with their commitments. General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Only a fool goes to battle without a plan, but only an idiot follows the plan once the battle has begun.”

The Elephant in the Room

As we all know, no project goes perfectly, no matter how well it is managed. Barriers, stops, blocks, and unforeseen incidents occur that must be called out and dealt with, and the way these things are dealt with and intervened with is quite often what determines the success of a project. This often involves calling mistakes or problems out and saying things that are simply uncomfortable - addressing the very issues that nobody wants to talk about. We refer to these issues, the collection of roadblocks, pieces of bad news, and problems-to-be-solved, as The Elephant in the Room. To put it simply, the “elephant in the room” is something that everyone knows about but no one is talking about or addressing.

Generally these elephants involve the unpleasant things in the background that affect the success of the project; they are easy to ignore but are issues that must nonetheless be addressed in order to achieve success. If allowed to remain unacknowledged these issues will continue to stall the project or send it off course until it is almost too late. The sooner an issue is acknowledged and confronted, the sooner it can be resolved, and it will definitely not go away if it is ignored. However, if it is so unpleasant to deal with, what good does addressing bad news do? No matter how messy an issue is you can only do something to clean it up once you acknowledge it is an issue in the first place.


Of course, the value of communication is no big secret – people know how important it is to be open and honest with their project team, yet they still do not.

The reason behind these communication barriers is resistance. In physics, a resisting force is one that retards motion, one that slows an object down or prevents it from moving forward. The same definition applies with people. People resist communication and having tough conversations because we are naturally resistant to conflict; we are conditioned to avoid uncomfortable situations because we fear disappointing others or making ourselves look bad. Furthermore, most corporate cultures are designed to suppress bad news and punish those who do not.

When the office norm is to operate under a “shoot the messenger” mentality, it is no wonder that so many people are always kept in the dark. However, bad news will not just disappear if you refuse to acknowledge it. In fact, it does the opposite and gains momentum until the problem becomes so big that it cripples the entire project. The things that you resist always persist.

Even “aggressive types,” or those who tend to get things out in the open, are often just as paralyzed by the elephant as passive people who prefer to hide or mask the issue. All types of people tend to resist talking about what's not working as it raises the question, “Whose fault is it?” Though it is in our human nature to assign blame when things break down, this is not a productive way to approach an issue.

No matter how you slice it—the problem is there, and addressing it from the perspective of, “How are we going to address and resolve the problem?” is the only things that matters. Dealing with the cause of an elephant issue and assigning blame does not solve the problem. Getting it on the table instead allows it to actually get solved and allows the project to get back on course. This is the goal, and it is the only goal, no matter how lucrative it seems to put somebody at fault.

Straight Talk

We all learned long ago that telling the truth is the best way to go. Our parents and kindergarten teachers taught us that from an early age that “honesty is the best policy.” We have all heard the story about young George Washington dealing with honesty when he cut down the cherry tree and finally came clean with, “I cannot tell a lie—I did it.” Sometimes things are simple and obvious -but this does not mean they are easy. George Washington makes it seem easy, but no matter what his fable suggests, it is not a simple task to speak the truth openly and honestly. Our reluctance to talk about critical things goes back a long way; it is not in human nature to talk about things that are unpleasant, but it is necessary.

Taming the elephant requires what we call straight talk, which is speaking the truth openly and honestly in a way that is responsible and builds relationships. When we use straight talk, we say exactly how we see the situation, with sensitivity for how it is heard and a commitment to move things forward. This takes rigor, courage and, above all, sensitivity for how it will be received.

Straight talk is not allowing our choices of words to undermine or distort the information, which we usually do in an attempt (whether intentionally or unconsciously) to avoid anticipated discomfort or to manipulate an outcome. It is not a license for accusation or attack, nor is it an excuse to be without empathy. Here are some examples what straight talk is NOT:

  • Exaggerating or understating the truth
  • Beating around the bush/throwing up a smokescreen
  • Shading the truth
  • Pretending unfounded certainty or expertise
  • Withholding relevant information
  • Not letting others know your true position
  • Failing to give due credit

When straight talk takes place effectively—the elephant gets addressed and progress is made. Through straight talk things get acknowledged and out in the open with little to no collateral damage, and people are left whole and complete. Most importantly, a new space exists for clarity and effectiveness, which allows creative solutions to come forward.

On the other hand, the problem is sometimes more difficult because it could potentially be heard in a negative way. Raising a difficult issue is best done in a safe space where the issue can be communicated without the fear of judgment and punishment. It is almost better to reward those who raise tough issues than to leave them feeling guilty or ashamed, though this is unfortunately not usually the case in most corporate environments.

Open and honest communication is vital to resolve issues with a project, yet there seems to be reluctance for most of us to do just that. As Peter Drucker, the godfather of management consulting, once said, “The problem is not that people don't know what to do, they know what to do. They just don't do what they know to do.”

Generous Listening

This means that the way it is listened is also important. This calls for what most people call active listening or generative listening. This can best be described as listening with a deep appreciation of the feelings, reality, and commitments of another person, all of which contribute to the other person's experience of being understood.

While shifting your thinking, speaking, and acting into the future is a change, it is not impossible and can be achieved with deliberate actions. The first step is to focus on the conversations you are having; it seems obvious, but the most important part of a conversation is that somebody hears what you have to say.

For example, there is always that “one” person in a meeting that consistently raises his or her hand with the same issue. Every time that person opens their mouth to speak, it takes every bit of self-restraint you have to keep from rolling your eyes. Contrary to what it may seem like, this person does not exist for the sole purpose of annoying you. They are so persistent because they feel what they have to say is important, but no matter how many times they say it, they are never heard.

It is similar to the classic brainteaser, “If a tree falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If what needs to be said does not get heard, then a conversation might as well have never occurred.

When on the receiving end of a conversation, particularly one on a sensitive issue, it is important to practice “generous listening.” Generous listening is a set of intentional acts allows for efficient and effective conversation. It allows you, as a listener, to guide the conversation and get to the real issue at hand quickly; dodging any side issues or smokescreens, the person talking may throw up. Because generous listening is an intentional act, it requires a good amount of practice and will not come naturally at first. However, with the following steps, you will find that the dynamic of your conversations will transform dramatically:

These are the benefits:

  • Gets to the real issue quickly
  • Allows it to get resolved
  • Time not wasted addressing side issues
  • The person speaking has the experience of being fully understood by the listener
  • Changes the dynamic of the communication
  • Cuts through any “smokescreens” that the speaker may present
  • Increases your ability to be heard by the speaker

We as human beings are not wired to communicate anything “negative.” We don't like to disappoint others -particularly those in authority. Our “default setting” is towards looking good and doing whatever we can to avoid looking bad. However, producing extraordinary outcomes requires extraordinary thinking, speaking, and actions, which includes open and honest communication—even about all of those tricky elephants in the room.


When the elephant in the room gets on the table progress ALWAYS takes place. It takes a bit of courage and sensitivity, but if it is addressed well, it gets things cleared up, moving forward and creates a productive environment.

©2013, Kevin Cullen
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana, USA



Related Content

  • PM Network

    Breathing Room member content open

    By Stetson, Chris Take a glance at the calendars of your project team members: Are they a back-to-back kaleidoscope of color with no break between meetings? In the short term, scheduling meetings like this can seem…

  • PM Network

    Fill the Vacuum member content open

    By Oyvetsky, Marat It's an odd thing to note in 2018: At many organizations, there's a project leadership vacuum. I see this in many IT business units I encounter. There are plenty of projects in motion, of course.…

  • PM Network

    Solving Sponsor Woes member content open

    By Rockwood, Kate Problem sponsors —whether they are monsters who flood the team with too many demands or wafflers who disappear when pivotal decisions must be made—remain prevalent. And they can wreak havoc on…

  • PM Network

    Meetings That Matter member content open

    PM Network asks the project management community: How do you ensure attendance and full engagement at project meetings?

  • PM Network

    No Time to Lose member content open

    By Rockwood, Kate By now, project, program and portfolio managers should have gotten the message: They need to be as well-versed in leadership skills as they are in technical skills. And not just classic leadership…