Is there an elephant in your room?

10 Jul

Today’s guest post is by Stewart Hase. 

Is that an elephant that I see?

Elephants are big people. In fact, you would not want one to sit on your sandwich.  You would think an elephant is too big to ignore. But there are zillions of elephants, everywhere you look, but we pretend they’re not there: it’s the elephant in the room phenomenon.

In families, elephants in the room range from the worst kind, such as family incest, to the more harmless (except to her) cupboard drinking of Aunt Mildred.  Everyone knows what is happening, in the case of incest it may even be the mother, but often no-one speaks up or takes action. Humans are even reluctant to say anything about relatively small matters such as offensive or antisocial behaviour, being let down by a friend or that what someone is doing might in fact be a poor choice: what I call the ‘zit on the nose’ phenomenon.

We just don’t like to tell people bad things.

It takes courage to act. Largely, humans dislike conflict mainly because it creates a huge amount of anxiety, which is extremely uncomfortable and to be avoided at all costs. There is also the fall out that might involve fractured relationships, being disliked and rejection. We like to be liked or as Albert Ellis says, we are love slobs. Better to remain in the inner circle with a nasty secret that being a pariah and morally or ethically intact. After all, it is family.

Elephants love living in organisations too where they are ignored with an even greater intensity than in families. You’d think it was the other way around given the emotional factor in a family setting but it is likely that there are huge emotional investments in the organisations in which we work and play.

Again, there is a huge range when it comes to severity and impact. There are organisations in which there is institutionalised corruption and bullying, for example, that goes on unchecked. In some cases the organisations acknowledge that there is a problem, such as paedophilia in the Catholic Church and bullying in the Australian defence forces, but still nothing is done. Its as if the elephant has been let out in the garden for feeding time.

Poor behaviour is one of the more common elephants in the room. Here I am not referring to poor performance, which often gets picked up at performance review time but to what amounts to anti-social behaviour. Every organisation or organisational unit has at least one person who behaves in ways that causes reactions from mild irritation to motional catharsis.

This is an even bigger problem when the person is a manager. You might find, for example, a very senior person is a dreadful bully but he is allowed to get away with it. The result is a culture of bullying that runs right through the organisation. People are, understandably, reluctant to speak up and people who do in fact blow the whistle on high level abuse or corruption do not have a good time if it, as the research on whistle-blowers shows.

We might think that, well, if its not a big thing then let it go. So what if the boss or someone else in the team tells lies, doesn’t keep promises, doesn’t listen, fails to communicate information, gets a little irritated, ignores people, is not a team player or is just plain rude. It doesn’t matter.

Well, it does, Employee engagement is a critical factor in job satisfaction and, we know that both these effect performance. Employees can easily become disengaged by elephants in the room. They sap motivation, destroy loyalty, disintegrate faith and hope, distinguish innovation and create a culture of mistrust. Elephants in teams can completely undermine effectiveness.

When we let someone get away with poor behaviour we being a co-dependent. We are implicitly saying that all is fine, that we approve and the behaviour will continue. And we’ll complain: a co-dependent victim.

All it takes is courage.

Also relevant to this topic is Stewart’s earlier post here on workplace bullying

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.Stewart blogs at

15 Responses to “Is there an elephant in your room?”

  1. Elisabeth July 10, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    A chap by the name of Eviatar Zerubavel has written a fine book on conspiracies of silence called The elephant in the room, in which he explores this phenomenon. It comes to mind here, needless to say with such shared titles and ideas.

    One thing that sticks out for me from what Zerubavel writes when he use the example of for instance alcoholism and the way it tends to be concealed within the family. He talks about the alcoholic as being like a boulder sitting in the centre of the lounge room. The family members must go to great pains to negotiate their way around this boulder. Not only do they get the unspoken message from earliest days that they are not allowed to speak about the boulder in their midst, they also learn that they are not allowed to speak about the fact that they are not allowed to speak about it. I learned this in my own family of origin, both personally and professionally.

    I once gave a paper to a group of psychological colleagues about autobiography and narcissism. During the talk, by way of illustration, I included a brief vignette that touched on the fact of a history of incest within my own family of origin across two generations, I was all but drummed out of my association as a consequence. I had spoken the unspeakable.


    • Stewart July 24, 2012 at 9:47 am #

      I haven’t read the book in question but I have read Mark Twain where the idea was used by him in The Stolen White Elephant and then plagiarised by others such as British and American journalists in the twentieth-century, most notably by in Chicago in 1952.

      You are right, I should have referenced Mark Twain.


  2. Hypocritophobe July 10, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Is the elephant in the room Banksy?


  3. hudsongodfrey July 10, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    I don’t know about others but I’ve always found the phrase, “not a team player” most likely to be directed towards anyone who mentioned having seen the elephant. So that by being at odds with hypocrisy one is liable to perpetrate the one kind of bad behaviour that others won’t tolerate.


  4. paul walter July 10, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    Elephants in the room for Australians include people-movements and the third world in general, economic and ecological sustainability against the “realities” of “politics” and (market?) economics and, of course, mortality.
    hudgod’s point re “teamplayer” the next stage, because as we know one person’s meat will be another’s poison.
    Elisabeth’s point intrigues me, because it seems micro to the asylum-seeker macro.The result of the event here tends to indicate the extent to which logic and rationality are enemies of group-think and hints at another elephant, the fraught nature of change.
    Finally,the role of the psychopath in the maintainance of the social template; the origins of the conflictive nature of society and why the group remains in the trees of a primal cognitive jungle.


  5. Hypocritophobe July 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Looks like the ‘elephant’ article is timely.

    And it is about time this stuff was dealt with, but the cynic in me can’t help but notice for every story about the catholic pedophilia, another sexual assault issue hits the news.
    If the issues are to be properly dealt with a Royal Commission MUST be called for both major areas(church-military) separately.


    • paul walter July 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

      They are devilish resistant, its a classic example.


  6. Julia July 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    I have a friend who was abused by her father and her uncle…dad’s brother…her entire family (with the one exception–her very aged paternal grandma) would rather throw her to psyche services than believe her.

    Her own mother threw her out the door….and years later still disowns her.

    There’s a humungeous fracture running through her being.
    So much potential … blunted.
    She is one of the loveliest people I know


  7. Mindy July 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    We were told it’s not bullying if it is a management style. Sure felt like bullying.


  8. doug quixote July 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    I suppose it all depends on the size of the room, the size of the elephant, and the ability of the other inhabitants to cope with the beast.

    As usual there is no clear-cut question, much less a clear-cut answer.


    • hudsongodfrey July 10, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

      The metaphor is meant to infer a beast of sufficient size and impact upon the occupants enjoyment of the room as to challenge their ability to cope by merely ignoring it.

      If on the other hand you’re looking to segue into humour, then don’t. The only joke I can think of featuring an elephant and a room is in really poor taste.


      • doug quixote July 11, 2012 at 7:29 am #

        That is so, HG. I note your reference to the overused and abused term “team player” Just about every organisation from the US Army down to the local supermarket tries to enlist this neo-speak gobbledygook to try to get their workers motivated : “we’re all part of a team” which is usually bullshit in a hierarchical structure like a supermarket, and in an army for that matter. It works on the sporting field well enough; that’s as far as it should ever go.

        Team players as you point out, are not likely to be thanked for pointing out an elephant in the room. Team players get on with their job supportive of each other etc etc etc. like good little smurfs.

        As for humour, there are no sacred cows; or elephants either.


        • hudsongodfrey July 11, 2012 at 9:43 am #

          Well of course being the only one to point out a prevailing corporate hypocrisy is never really going to be a welcome interjection.

          As for corporate language I recall Don Watson’s description of as being “to the English language what dead sheep around a dried up waterhole are to agriculture”…Apt!


  9. Deanne April 28, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

    You ought to take part in a contest for one of the highest quality blogs on the net.

    I’m going to highly recommend this website!


  10. city of glendale jobs May 5, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    Hi, I desire to subscribe for this webpage to take newest updates, so where can i do
    it please help out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: