Some time ago, I was visiting with a young manager about some employee issues. He had an experienced staff that appeared tight knit and highly functioning on the surface.
As the manager’s story unfolded, it became clear that a rift between two of the employees had produced a strong negative undercurrent in the office. This rift had grown to the point that it was affecting office productivity and customer interactions. The young manager sought ideas to handle the situation.
Shooting an Elephant
This manager’s situation reminded me of George Orwell’s 1936 essay, Shooting an Elephant.
In the story, Orwell describes a young British officer, stationed in a foreign territory, who has to deal with a rampaging elephant. The officer is caught between his compassion for the animal and the expectations of duty to his post.
While tracking down the rogue elephant, he discovers that it has caused large amounts of damage to the village and trampled an unsuspecting man who stumbled into its path.
When the officer first learned of the rogue elephant, he grabbed a small gun—an old 44 Winchester—and interviewed the locals to determine the elephant’s whereabouts.
The locals gave conflicting accounts of the elephant’s whereabouts and the officer was about to dismiss the entire problem when loud screams sounded from a nearby rice paddy. When the young officer arrived at the paddy, a large crowd had gathered to see him dispatch the problem.
As the officer approached, the elephant stood calmly eating bunches of grass and took no notice of the approaching crowd.
The dilemma of allowing the seemingly innocent animal to live or die rose in the young officer’s mind as he faced the elephant. Not really wanting to kill the elephant but feeling pressure to do so because he was the armed authority figure expected to protect the villagers, he abandoned reason, called for someone to bring him an elephant gun to replace the small Winchester and prepared to shoot.
In the end, the officer reflected on the situation and concluded that he killed the elephant, not because of the threat it posed, but to save face from not taking action in a difficult situation.
As I listened to the young manager’s story, I could not help but compare the plights of the two leaders. Filled with conflicting emotions and outside pressures to perform, both leaders faced difficult choices.
The manager had to risk upsetting—and potentially losing—two valuable employees or letting things go on, unchanged. With the rest of the staff looking on, the young manager felt compelled to take some type of action, but due to the conflicting emotions, was stuck doing nothing.
Failure to Communicate
In her 2010 book, Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them, author Holly Weeks outlines nine common mistakes people make when preparing to have difficult conversations. They are:
1) Having a combat mentality
2) Oversimplifying the problem
3) Respecting the person you are talking to
4) Lashing out or shutting down
5) Reacting to thwarting ploys
6) Getting hooked by reactions
7) Rehearsing the conversation
8) Making assumptions about intentions
9) Losing sight of the goal
I spent some time discussing these points with the manager, taking extra time reviewing how to avoid the combat mentality and making assumptions.
The Love and Logic Principle
I also spent some time reviewing a parenting principle I learned long ago from Foster Cline and Jim Fay called the Love and Logic Principle.
Essentially, this principle states that the authority figure will give the participant choices based on solutions acceptable to the authority figure.
For example, either a manager may tell an employee who behaves poorly to act in a certain way or the employer would be happy to help search for a new position in another company. Then the employee can choose which course of action to pursue.
Difficult situations and their underlying issues, when swept under the rug, never resolve themselves.
Leaders Who Fail to Act Lose Credibility
Leaders who fail to act lose credibility in the eyes of the bystanders, while leaders who act too harshly lose respect as well.
Much like the rogue elephant standing in the rice paddy, the young manager’s situation calls for action, but it calls for careful and well-thought-out action.
Leaders caught in these situations have to remember not to be reactive but proactive and work on communication skills before problems arise.
When problems do arise, gather the appropriate information, make an informed—not emotional—decision, and move forward. Dealing with elephants is never easy, but having them trample you is not fun either.
I applaud the young manager’s efforts to confront the elephant in the room and I look forward to hearing how it turns out.