The Elephant in the Room: When you ‘Don’t Know’ admit it

Just checking the trunk!

Just checking the trunk!

You will probably be familiar with the Indian parable of the 6 blind men who were asked to describe an elephant.

“It’s like a rope”, said the one who felt the tail.

“Not at all. More like a tree trunk” said the one who felt the elephant’s leg.

“I would describe it as a wall” (this from the guy who stood under the belly).

“Ridiculous” said the fourth man, holding the trunk. “It’s a serpent.”

The fifth man catching hold of the elephant’s tusk declared: “It’s a spear!”

“You are all wrong” the last man pronounced, fondling the elephant’s ear. “It’s a fan.”

Each person was ‘correct’ in what they were reporting but also wrong in the sense that what they described was incorrect. In managing change programmes, a similar dynamic is often at play. Let’s assume that the rationale for changing your organisation is robust and the execution plans are well underway. Even where all the bits have been lined up, people experience change in different ways. Like those 6 guys describing the elephant, individuals have their own ‘take’ on what’s happening. There is one pearl of wisdom around this space as follows: It’s difficult to convince the ‘doubters’ that you have chosen the correct route forward because the ‘signs’ of progress are often less than crystal clear.

False Certainty: In some organizations, the complexity of change programmes coupled with uncertainty about the future makes it hard to describe what’s actually happening (or what will happen going forward) with any degree of certainty. Yet it’s hardwired into most people that uncertainty makes them uncomfortable. Human psychology is crystal clear on this. Ambiguity leads to anxiety and anxiety lowers performance. So, poorly managed change programmes don’t just produce an anxious group of staff. It produces an anxious group of staff who perform poorly. And how do you manage this conundrum? Well, we already know that people crave certainty. And we also know that executives cannot always provide this level of certainty in a rapidly unfolding situation. So leaders are torn between wanting to respond to requests for information without actually ‘spoofing’. One mistake that many executives make in this space is to prematurely declare ‘certainty’, providing concrete answers when they don’t have the baseline information.

Crap Shoot: And the result is…. a crap shoot. You might be lucky; that educated guess could turn out to be exactly right. Or you might end up looking like a plonker who doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Is it worth the risk? Managing people is fundamentally about gaining trust. You explain the world as you see it. You describe the necessity for change and what’s going to happen during the change process. You predict how the future will unfold to the extent that you can.

The Answer: Create ‘short-term’ certainty by telling staff specifically what you want them to do in the weeks and months ahead. When you don’t know the answer to a specific question, you admit it. While they may not like the message, the real trick is to make sure that they respect the messenger. When you lie, the elephant in the room is you.

Paul Mooney

PS Lighter Note (this came from a lifelong Apple fan).

Question: How many Bill Gates’ does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One. He just calls a meeting & makes darkness the standard!

PPS: If you have another 2.5 minutes to spare (it’s part of your executive relaxation programme) have a look at this kids Marshmellow experiment. Could you resist the temptation?

 Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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