How to Address the Elephant in the Room at Your Next Business Meeting

Sarah Hood

Prevent unspoken issues from derailing productive meetings at work Is the “elephant in the room” eating up your meeting time and squashing your productivity? That …

Prevent unspoken issues from derailing productive meetings at work

keep the elephant out of the boardroomIs the “elephant in the room” eating up your meeting time and squashing your productivity? That enormous issue that everyone’s thinking about but no one wants to discuss can stand in the way of your ability to run smooth meetings. So how can you get him out of the meeting room to make room for an efficient exchange of ideas among everyone present?

In order to hold an efficient meeting, you need to have the right people in the room. But it’s not enough to assemble bodies in a space; everyone needs to be truly present in mind and spirit too. Sometimes even a minor distraction can disrupt the flow. For instance, a major storm is moving in, and employees are anxious to get home before it hits, or the local sports team is in the middle of a key playoff game.

In cases like this, the solution is usually as simple as acknowledging the distraction and addressing it. Performers understand this instinctively; in 1972, Canadian actor William Hutt famously announced the winning score of the Russia-Canada hockey series while he was onstage starring in Shakespeare’s King Lear (to great applause).

But what if the elephant in the room is a more aggressive beast? For example, your company is being taken over, or your department is amalgamating with another, and layoffs are feared. Or perhaps an employee has recently and suddenly been terminated and “walked out of the building” for reasons not known by staff.

All the experts agree that—in the words of Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures—“There is only one way to deal with your Elephants—head on.” By facing the unspoken fears with as much clear, accurate information and reassurance as you’re able to under the circumstances, you can slow down the elephant’s charge.

In a 2013 Forbes article titled “How Leaders Can Address The Elephant(s) In The Room”, author George Bradt of PrimeGenesis suggests there are three types of problem pachyderms:

  • Ignored: Once identified, these can be addressed right away or deferred.
  • Imagined: These will simply disappear if you talk about them.
  • Insistent: These are the ones that must be dealt with right away.

For those times when dealing with the elephant means more than just correcting inaccurate rumours, communications professor Rick Bommelje offers “5 Steps to Deal With the Elephant in  the Room”:

  1. Name it
  2. Get ideas from team members
  3. Get agreement on the best solution
  4. Get buy-in
  5. Step forward together

One type of situation that may need to be dealt with outside the meeting room is when the team has become dysfunctional, with factions or individuals who cannot work together. “If it’s tension between employees, it’s better to handle that off-line,” writes career coach Hallie Crawford in her 2015 article “How to Handle the Elephant in the Room During a Meeting”.

The elephant is one more reason to have solid, entrenched meeting rituals that encourage everyone to voice their opinions, a strong culture of teamwork building and a system for handling conflict in the workplace.

“The more regularly you check for signs of elephants in your organization, the more likely they are to be discovered at an early stage,” write Pamela S. Harper and D. Scott Harper of Business Advancement Inc. in their article “How To Take Control of the ‘Elephant in the Room’”.

In fact, when a team is working well together, they can even make elephant-spotting a regular check-in moment at every meeting. It may add a few minutes to the agenda, but that’s a small trade-off for making sure everyone in the room is present and ready to participate in making every meeting a good one.

Has your meeting productivity ever been blocked by an elephant in the room? How did you deal with it? Thanks for reading don’t forget to share/tweet/like our blog just underneath this paragraph. And don’t forget, we’re always here to help with your business efficiency needs.

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Sarah B. Hood is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She writes well researched, fresh and engaging articles on news and lifestyle topics like food, culture, design, urban life, environment and travel.

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