How to Talk with Your Team About the Elephant in the Room

How to Talk with Your Team About the Elephant in the Room

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If your team feels “stuck,” the problem might involve issues that are difficult to discuss — conflict between two team members, for example, or an underperforming employee. To address these issues head-on, leaders must learn the art of framing a conversation so people can organize their thoughts, feelings, and experiences to come to a solution. This article offers a five-step process around framing, and two examples of how it can help bring “undiscussables” into the light.

No one mentions the hostility and blatant conflict between two team members. A colleague softens the data to avoid delaying the launch date of a project. At the Monday team meeting, the leader doesn’t mention the fact that two team members were fired the week before.

These situations occur at many organizations, and they are hard to address because they are uncomfortable to raise and discuss. Since organizational theorist Chris Argyris’ coined the term “undiscussable” in 1980, numerous scholars have tackled the problem of issues that are too threatening, too uncomfortable, or too hidden to bring to the surface. These are the topics that can feel awkward or expose major issues, such as pay inequity, a team members’ underperformance, or competition between departments that threaten to derail a project.

As executive coaches and organizational leadership consultants, we tackle undiscussables with our clients daily. But it’s usually not the undiscussable itself that’s presented. Rather, our clients complain about its most common symptom: the feeling that things are “stuck.”

“Stuckness” leads, at the very least, to ineffective meetings that amount to no more than status updates and, at the very worst, to inaccurate decisions or failed projects. And stuckness comes with a steep price tag, costing organizations millions of dollars per year. When uncomfortable issues can’t be addressed, organizations end up tolerating toxic employees and underperformers. Recurring discussions or background tensions lead to squandered energy and interpersonal fatigue. And the lack of progress that results from undiscussables saps morale and motivation.

Nevertheless, organizations abound with — and indulge — undiscussables. We see two reasons for this. One, as Argyris points out, they serve a purpose: to help people avoid short-term conflicts, threats, and embarrassment. Second, as we contend, they exist because of a skill gap. And that missing skill is the skill of framing.

What Is Framing — and Why Don’t More Leaders Use It?

Framing means defining the issue and setting the container for the conversation. A frame helps people organize their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and ultimately, allows them to take action on the issue. We see framing as the Swiss army knife of leadership — it’s one of the most useful skills a leader can use, one that solves a variety of problems, including undiscussables.

If framing is such a valuable tool, why do so few leaders know of, or use, it? We see three reasons:

We don’t teach the skill of framing to leaders.

Framing is a communication skill used throughout history to persuade audiences, initiate change, rally people in moments of crisis, and set a compelling vision. Yet, while we expect leaders to be able to do this, we don’t teach them how to do it. The average executive we work with, especially those who lead a technical function such as finance, operations, IT, or even HR, have never even heard of framing.

We can’t frame what we can’t acknowledge.

Undiscussables are precisely what we’ve been conditioned to avoid. From an early age we’re taught that if we don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. We’re trained to protect ourselves and others from social discomfort. Framing an undiscussable runs counter to this training.

Framing is thought to slow things down.

Leaders are incentivized to achieve results. Framing the elephant in the room is seen as tangential, time intensive, and a delay of progress. Yet, in fact, the biggest obstacle to progress are precisely the unspoken differences, obstructive behaviors and energy-draining moods that remain unaddressed.

The Art of Framing

It’s hard to overcome these hurdles, yet it’s possible to learn a set of framing skills that get us and our teams unstuck. In our experience, leaders can build this vital leadership competency by practicing these five steps, which offer a useful template for surfacing difficult conversations.

Step 1: Identify to yourself what’s impeding progress.

As a leader, your first step is to define what is causing resistance or blocking forward motion. This could be a submerged tension, an inconsistency in action, a difference of opinion, a negative emotion, passive agreement, or an unconscious pattern. In this step, it’s your job to try to identify what’s happening. Ask yourself, what’s at the heart of the matter? What’s not working?

Step 2: Look at the situation with curiosity.

The next step is to open up your understanding of the issue. It helps to imagine that you are an extraterrestrial observing the situation for the first time. You may ask yourself, what do I notice? What possibilities exist besides my ideas about what’s happening? What else could be going on? By giving yourself distance, you can more easily identify other possibilities without becoming emotionally triggered. This step also helps prevent bias because you’re not identified with a point of view, side, or outcome. To begin, start each thought with a “maybe statement.” Maybe … something else could be true.

Step 3: Name what you observe to others, without judgment.

More often than not, something is stuck or undiscussable because it is thought to be threatening, undervalued, or simply wrong. Naming it and holding it without judgment opens up the floor for learning and discussion with those involved. This step requires that you describe your observations about what’s impeding progress (step 1). To do this, you have to hold the possibilities (step 2) as equally valid. This step normally starts with these words: “I notice…”, “I observe…”, “It seems…” or “I’ve heard…”

Step 4: Set an intention with others for learning.

This step helps you, as the leader, create a psychologically safe container for discussing something potentially threatening to others. This is important because research shows that our spontaneous framing in difficult conversions, particularly those characterized by competing views or conflict, tend to be self-protective. Self-protective framing all but precludes the opportunity to learn and improve. When a leader shows their intentions to learn, it makes a productive conversation about various points of view possible. This step can sound like, “I’d like to learn…” or “Help me understand…”

Step 5: Invite reflection and input from others.

Your final step is to now engage others and invite them into the frame — allowing all conversation participants to address a shared reality. This invitation transforms the undiscussable, or stuckness, to an issue that everyone can focus on. This step can be as simple as saying, “What do you think?” or “How do you see it?”

Here’s how these steps might play out in two different scenarios.

A Recurring Performance Issue

One of our clients, Amal, the chief sales officer at a professional services firm, came to us frustrated and concerned. (All names are pseudonyms.) Over the past three months, Amal had given feedback to her new regional sales director, Lee, three times regarding improving the specificity and clarity of his expectations with the sales team. For example, the individual salespeople weren’t methodically following the firm’s sales process of qualifying and tracking leads, resulting in an anemic sales pipeline that wouldn’t meet the firm’s growth goals.

Lee was routinely praised for his empathy and collaborative leadership style, but he appeared to undervalue the need to set direct and clear goals. Amal encouraged, cajoled, and checked in with Lee, in hopes that he would set clearer expectations with his staff, but nothing changed.

In a last-ditch attempt to correct the issue, Amal decided to frame it for Lee.

Step 1: Identify to yourself what is impeding progress.

Lee is not setting strong and clear expectations with his team, even after I’ve given him feedback on this topic three times.

Step 2: Look at the situation with curiosity.

Maybe he doesn’t agree with the feedback? Maybe he’s not a match for this role? Maybe he doesn’t know how to set clear expectations or measurable goals? Maybe he’s afraid of conflict or pushback from his staff?

Step 3: Name what you observe to others, without judgment.

Amal says to Lee, “I notice that we’ve discussed the need for you to set explicit goals with your sales staff and yet the problem of them not following our sales process persists.” Note, Amal did not try to give the feedback again. She framed the lack of perceived change as the issue.

Step 4: Set an intention with others for learning.

Amal says to Lee, “I’d like to learn how you see the situation and why this problem continues.”

Step 5: Invite reflection and input from others.

Amal asks Lee, “What are your thoughts?”

By setting this frame, Amal was able to discover the root cause underlying Lee’s reluctance to change: He expected pushback from his staff and admitted he was uncomfortable with conflict. Lee understood the feedback and wanted to change, but he was afraid of being seen as authoritative and he didn’t know how to work with staff objections. By taking a leadership training course and working with a coach, Lee was able to build his confidence and conflict fluency skills, which helped him set clearer goals with his team and navigate future resistance.

Team Gridlock

Tai, the chief operating officer of a multinational consumer products company, told us that she attended a meeting where her team was discussing several recent negative customer reviews. Her team leads were blaming the problem on supply-chain breakdowns, labor shortages and a deficient market analysis. Tai saw more finger pointing than productive dialogue. Worried that nothing would resolve and she would end up with entrenched conflict and disengaged team members, she decided to frame the issue.

Step 1: Identify to yourself what is impeding progress.

The group is assigning blame versus thinking critically.

Step 2: Look at the situation with curiosity.

Maybe team leaders are afraid of negative repercussions: increased workload, public criticism and losing credibility in the eyes of others? Maybe some are loyal to our vendors and don’t want to rock the boat? Maybe some don’t see the customer perspective? Maybe some don’t know what to fix or where to start?

Step 3: Name what you observe to others, without judgment.

Tai says to the team, “I notice everyone has different ideas about where the problem lies. And I also notice that we’re not analyzing or discussing any of the ideas in depth.”

Step 4: Set an intention with others for learning.

Tai continues with, “I’d like us to truly understand what the challenges we’re facing are so that we can get back to positive reviews.”

Step 5: Invite reflection and input from others.

Tai inquires, “All your viewpoints are legitimate. How about we each spend five minutes individually reflecting on what we see as the central problem and then present our ideas to the group for discussion?”

When the Tai set this frame, the team was able to start systematically and critically thinking together. Each of the challenges were outlined for all team members to see. Holding the challenges up for public review gave the team an opportunity to debate and identify the top issue they needed to solve first in order to reverse the negative review trend. Team members also set up another meeting to discuss the recovery plans for each customer who sent a negative review.

. . .

The practice of framing something that is stuck because it’s uncomfortable is both simple and hard. It’s simple because the steps are easy to learn, but it’s hard because we have to go against our conditioning. When we meet an obstacle, our typical reaction is to either push through it or take the path of least resistance by ignoring it. In both instances, we fail to define the problem properly. And more often than not, we implicitly define the blockage through our filter of desires, in terms of what we want to happen. Our biases and emotions halts our curiosity and inhibits our capacity to seek out new information and invite help from others.

As with most new skills, framing becomes easier with practice. When leaders experiment repeatedly with these steps, they develop muscles to get work back on track and tackle even the largest elephants in the room.

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