How to Face the Elephant in the Room

The last time I addressed the topic of adaptive capacity, I suggested that one of the best ways to measure an organization’s adaptive capacity is by observing what happens when leaders are faced with difficult conversations. Leaders in organizations with high adaptive capacity are more direct about addressing the elephant in the room, and one of the hallmarks of organizations with low adaptive capacity is leadership that avoids bringing up difficult topics. In this post, I will talk about the four ways of coping with uncomfortable conversations and why some are more productive than others.

According to Juan Carlos Eichholz, there are four ways of having a tough conversation: a trenches debate, a politically correct interaction, a reflective dialogue, and a generative dialogue.

A trenches debate happens when a leader or manager approaches an employee in such a way that rather than opening a space for meaningful conversation, it causes that person or people to go on the defensive and often shut down. This is one of the worst ways to tackle a difficult topic. Acting too forward or aggressively can do more harm than ignoring the problem altogether by setting up a “me against you” situation that is likely to waste time, energy, and cause potentially irreparable division within the organization.

A politically correct approach is also one of the less desirable ways of dealing with difficult topics. In this context, the term doesn’t refer to governmental politics or social norms—rather, it refers to an interaction that fails to address the problem at all. Politically correct conversations are often couched in euphemistic terms that attempt to soften the blow, but instead result in confusion and inaction.

Similar to the politically correct approach, a reflective dialogue happens when the issue is not addressed straightforwardly enough to move people to change. Reflective dialogues are often abstract and fail to engage the listener in such a way that they are moved to take ownership of the problem. Reflective dialogues rarely produce the intended outcome of change, and can allow the elephant to grow bigger.

The last way of tackling the elephant in the room is through what Eichholz calls a generative dialogue. Generative dialogues “create enough disequilibrium to make progress on the issue” resulting in employees “feel[ing] the tension yet remain[ing] engaged in the conversation.” Ensuring that difficult conversations are generative requires an organizational culture that encourages communication and holds itself accountable.

Think about the last difficult conversation you had with an employee. What kind of dialogue was it? If you’re unsure of how well your organization is handling difficult problems, let’s get in touch. You can contact me via my website, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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