The Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia

The Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia happens to have been built next to a mango grove that one family of elephants have always visited when the fruit ripens. When they returned one year and found the luxury accommodation in the way, they simply walked through the lodge lobby right psat the front desk to reach their beloved grove of trees.

Although this circumstance in Zambia literally depicts an elephant in the room, the phrase “The elephant in the room” is more commonly used to describe an issue that goes unacknowledged by a team. The elephant might be inferred or subtly acknowledged, but in most cases, remains unnamed.

Since I have worked with various types of teams for 25 years, I have seen lots of elephants in the room. You have seen them too! It might be the dysfunction in a family that everyone is aware of but nobody wants to acknowledge. I often see a lack of team accountability or trust as the big elephant that goes unnamed.

Limiting assumptions, unchecked egos and weak operating agreements keep elephants lurking. These can also lead to significant failures like we have witnessed with the NASA o-ring disaster and Bernard Madoff’s betrayal of his clients’ trust.

The goal for the team leaders is not to prevent elephants from entering your team. Although issues will always arise, the real objective is to create a culture that encourages the quick and risk-free identification of elephants. There are complex dynamics that create and keep an elephant in the room, so here is one simple thing you can do to help your team identify elephants.

The best defense against an unnamed elephant trampling your team’s performance is to agree to rules of engagement. Rules of engagement make it easier for team members to take a stand and do the right thing.

Think back to your school days. Each teacher, usually on the first day of the year, explained the classroom rules of engagement: raise your hand if you have a question, request a hall pass to use the restroom, place your homework on your desk each morning, respect others’ property, etc. These rules helped both the teacher and students focus on the most important things in the classroom-learning.

Defining the rules of engagement can help your team focus on what is most important–performance. They might address how to make decisions, share information, consider ideas for improvement, coordinate hand-offs, review work, challenge prevailing thought, prioritize and resolve conflict.

Rules of engagement do not have to be wordy, but they must fit your team and be embraced by them.

Here are some other examples from teams we have worked with:

  • If an issue is not resolved after five e-mails, you must meet (phone or in person) to resolve the issue.
  • All reports must be reviewed by at least one other team member before leaving our department.
  • Customer-related tasks are always a higher priority than internal tasks.
  • No team or committee meeting lasts more than one hour.
  • Every project is debriefed for lessons learned within one week of project completion.

Excellent leaders keep their rules of engagement visible and apply them to decisions they make, even small decisions. These leaders also rely on their entire team to ensure each member (including themselves!) is performing within the rules of engagement. This encourages and empowers the team to uphold the rules and point out elephants as they appear.

For more tips that excellent leaders practice, read 7 Moments… that Define Excellent Leaders.