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Got elephants? Let’s tackle them.

I once observed two members of an executive team in a family business come to blows in a  management meeting. Siblings. You can just imagine the scene and the horror on the faces of the other people in the meeting. A week later as I prepared to be relieved of my role as coach to the executive team, the CEO explained that bringing the issue to the surface that lead to the fisticuffs was exactly what I was brought in for; “brilliant work, mate – thank you” he said, “we can finally get on with running this place.”

We recently took a look at the differences between coaching, mentoring, training and consulting. One more key difference that a coach should bring to the table and which other disciplines will actively avoid, is dealing with the elephants.

Elephants in the room, that is. Most – actually, probably all - businesses which have reached the point of requiring the support of a coach will have elephants in the room. Those unspoken issues which swirl just beneath the surface can have significant impacts on company culture, the engagement of staff members and clients, productivity and, quite frankly, overall happiness.

A quick detour into neuroscience provides a handy metaphor for the importance of elephants in the room – unseen, yet, being pachyderms, astoundingly powerful. In this case, American professor Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of elephants to describe how our minds work: like a boy riding an elephant.

The boy is the conscious reasoning part; but the work is done by the elephant, the unconscious part of the brain. The boy may seem fully in control, but beneath him is a far more powerful force which is also capable of making its own inexplicable decisions – decisions which can have deleterious effects.

It’s the same with those issues in your business which are palpably there, but no-one is prepared to broach the topic. Conversely, when elephants are tackled in meeting rooms across Australia, due to a lack of perceived objectivity, the result is often as toxic as leaving the issue alone.

So we reach impasse – Let issues that impact performance sit in the culture and fester; or build the courage to tackle them ourselves and potentially create bigger problems.

It is expressly the purpose of the coach to help identify and draw out these issues, while ensuring that ‘the room’ deals with them from an objective rather than subjective viewpoint, ie. For the betterment of the organisation and culture in general. One of the key value-adds of a good business coach is the ability to provoke and guide those elephants.

And this process should be fun, where possible, even though tackling thorny issues which are usually tiptoed around can be uncomfortable. That’s no reason to keep avoiding them! After all, whether in the open or not, the issues are still there and if they are hampering business performance, staff morale or company culture, it’s best that they are dealt with. If sleeping dogs – or elephants – are left to lie, there is every possibility that driving up employee engagement and enthusiasm will suffer or fail.

Your coach should have the empathy to manage this process sensitively, providing guidance towards actions and resolutions which give people a boost – and by extension, benefits the business as a whole.


Chris Pezzimenti