Elephants and Gorillas

A riddle: What do gorillas and elephants have in common? Answer: Both are alive and thriving in many business meetings.

This realization occurred to me as I was facilitating a leadership team retreat. As a cross-functional group of managers evaluated their current situation through their own departmental lenses, I was struck by the “seven blind men and the elephant” fable.  In that story, one blind person touched the tusk of an elephant and determined it was a weapon. A second blind person touched the tip of the elephant’s soft tail and concluded it was a cushion. Other blind people, touching other parts of the elephant, made their own judgments as to the object they were in contact with. The moral of the story was that only by combining their individual and unique perspectives did the most realistic view of the elephant emerge.

Each manager interpreted their current state through their own departmental lens. From that perspective, the process looked a particular way, with strengths and weaknesses that made sense from that particular “stance.”  Yet what seemed so obvious to one manager was met with incredulity from others. “How could you possibly believe that?”  “Seven blind men” indeed …

As the discussion continued, I was also struck by what was not said. One particular department was not responding in the way it needed to, nor with the quality or timeliness that was required for the organization to thrive. Because the leader of that part of the organization was a senior vice president who had helped to grow the organization, no one was willing to hold him accountable for his department’s poor performance – at least not in public. An image of an “800 pound gorilla” immediately came to mind.  It was clear that that hot, sweaty gorilla was sitting clearly in the middle of the conference room table, yet no one was acknowledging its presence.

It strikes me that elephants and gorillas are a powerful and potentially toxic combination of animals in any meeting. They both speak to a form of “selective blindness” that is often indicative of a deep-seated pattern in a team or organization. Members create involved stories to rationalize their “not seeing” particular behaviors or not appropriately responding to them. “John is such a great guy in so many other ways.” “Yes, it’s an issue, but it’s not my job.”

So what is a facilitator (zookeeper?) to do? Perhaps it is easier to begin by talking about what not to do. The first thing not to do is feed the animals. This only makes them bigger and harder to move. Also, don’t ignore the existence of the animals. That just reinforces the current pattern of behaviors that is causing problems in the system.

What might you do instead? Naming the animals is an interesting technique.
It acknowledges their presence and allows them to be discussed by other group members. In some cases, petting the animals is also acceptable. While counterintuitive, recognizing that they are only animals allows us to make friends with them; to treat them gently and with respect; to look for their useful properties, even as we attempt to manage the realities of their existence.

A third set of strategies revolves around fencing the animals in. It may be useful to create some boundaries in which elephants and gorillas can be tolerated and managed while at the same time recognizing there are some unacceptable limits – where the animals are not allowed to roam. A variation on this theme comes in recognizing that animals have both natural enemies, and other animals of which they are afraid. Each of those ideas can be used purposefully to try to create some checks and balances inside the animal’s domain.

How do you address the elephants and gorillas in your organization?

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