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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

18 Sep '11

The elephants in the room

On a recent consult with leaders from a local church one of the common refrains was that there were a lot of elephants in the room. Elephants are those issues that everyone knows are present but nobody feels free to name. It is also an indication that there is not enough safety or trust in the group to put the elephant (an unresolved but significant issue) on the table.

Every organization has issues that are problematic. The problem with elephants is that they are issues that cannot be discussed without repercussions from some corner. In other words, the presence of elephants is indicative of a culture that both avoids conflict (we don't want to talk about it) and which lacks the necessary trust to have a discussion around an issue without threat of personal repercussions. Elephants then, by definition, because they cannot be named and discussed are indicators of a dysfunctional group or team.

We discussed the result of conflict avoidance in a recent post - sick churches, both because unresolved conflict does not go away but because the inability to deal with conflict indicates leaders who do not have have the courage to lead. Unattended issues fester and become tumors that hurt the body.

What groups do not understand about elephants, however, is that they are really opportunities to become a better organization or team. Dealt with, they are not negatives but opportunities to deal with an issue that has gone untreated and which if solved will better the team and organization. In other words, wherever you uncover an elephant you uncover an opportunity to get better, become healthier and build greater trust.

One of the elephants for this group was that while they "wanted to grow" they didn't want their church "family" to change so they actually resisted allowing new people into the family dynamics or relationships of the church. Thus, like many churches they were plateaued and actually in decline. Nobody wanted to talk about the dynamic that held them hostage because it was uncomfortable and involved something they had to own. But once on the table for discussion they had an opportunity to face their own dysfunction and think about changes they needed to make so that new people coming in would want to stay. Their significant problem was actually a huge opportunity if faced and handled well.

The reluctance to name elephants or issues is that we know someone will be offended. In our organization we talk about robust dialogue where any issue can be put on the table with the exception of personal attacks or hidden agendas. We can be honest but we cannot get personal. The issue is the issue, it is not a person. We also work very hard to create safe environments where we can discuss issues without people feeling unsafe.

It is a matter of perspective. Elephants are problems but problems, rather than being negative are actually opportunities to grow and get better. I am always interested in finding ways to grow and get better as an organization so I welcome the uncovering of problems or elephants or any issue that if resolved in a positive way makes us a better, healthier, more effective organization.

The key is to create a safe environment where we can put the issues on the table and keep them as issues that we all have a stake in resolving with the commitment that there will never be recrimination for naming them. This obviously requires a senior leader and other leaders who are not defensive but who model and invite transparency and open dialogue. After all it is not about us but about the mission that Jesus has given us.