The Elephant in the Room

Over separate lunches during the last week, I met with two of the most delightful people: bright, engaging, talented, energetic, professional–what smart business leaders would label as “talent we don’t want to lose.” But that isn’t the only thing these two young women have in common.

Both have been stymied, stopped, put off, turned away, and politically discouraged from doing anything that would “rock the boat,” step up their game, or be perceived by the powers-that-be as anything other than programmed robots waiting for direction. Their leaders like white bread, and their thinking doesn’t go beyond ‘how we’ve always done it,’ ‘now is not the right time’ and ‘we need to ride this out.’ This is head-in-the-sand water-treading at its best within a Fortune 100 and a Fortune 200 organization. Individual ambition and interest in contributing has been discouraged and belittled as untimely and inappropriate, and–whether spoken or unspoken–employees are expected to “trust us.”

This is probably a rant most accurately focused on large, heavy dinosaurs of organizations, but if it fits, and you’re not large, please step up and claim it. At least be honest with yourself.

I talked with a woman this morning about how employees are discounted as creative resources and shuffled like chess pieces while decisions are made around them; they are ignored, kind of like ‘The Elephant in the Room.’ Rather than utilizing the intelligence and expertise of people in the organization, leaders are using old-style “hunker down and wait this out, cut-our-losses” kind of thinking. They’re leading and feeding the uncertainty.

Every organization in existence is proud to claim that “people are our most important product,” or that “our people matter,” or “we’re nothing without our human capital.” And the dirty little secret (and it’s not even a secret!) is that those human resources are only expenses to be curtailed in order to make the next quarter’s financial expectations or minimize losses. Most capital is maintained and improved so the value increases, but not human capital.

Rather than using this time of economic uncertainty to regroup, develop these resources, realign and retrain, almost all organizations are pulling back, cutting the “expense” of honing the brains that make the business successful. Employers are sitting on their resources, all of them: time, money & people, waiting for the economy to come back. Well, news flash here: it’s not coming back! At least not the way most people are thinking. We are way beyond the 20th century when a recession was followed by something stronger that looked like more and better of the same.

We will see something stronger, but it won’t be more and better of the same…whatever the same is to your organization. The something stronger that we’ll see on the other side of this ‘downturn’ is of our own making, not of our own hiding…hiding under the radar, using the same tired industrial-era strategies to ride out the storm.

So organizations that don’t wake up sooner rather than later and deal with the Elephant in the Room, all employees who drive the business–and not just the ones in the executive suite–are losers in this economy. The Elephant that no one addresses is the collective brainpower going to waste, and the recognition that resources put toward sharpening that talent is the only intelligent way to create the future of the organization, at least any future worth having.

So you’re part of the Elephant…now what?

1. Stop waiting.
2. Start doing.

If your organization is like the one I’m describing, do you really think you’re safe if you do as you’re told, stay within your job box and wait? For what…for things to improve on their own? Do you think that keeping your head down will help you avoid the next round of expense control? Come on, open your eyes!

Get moving: look around and see what your company needs, figure out what your customers want. Where are business growth opportunities? What’s happening in the industry and with your company’s competitors? Where can new products or services increase customer loyalty? Who can you collaborate with on a project that can use your talents? Where can you step up and take ownership, increasing your value and partnering to strengthen your organization? What new training or learning will make you even more valuable to the business? Here’s a radical idea: pay for it yourself! It’s an investment in both your present and your future, and it won’t be wasted.

What’s holding you back? Fear? Of being a survivor and having your job plus those of three others who lost theirs? Or, leaving and knowing that you really don’t know your own value? Either way, stepping up and taking action is your only choice: waiting to be picked is an old-fashioned approach that won’t get you ahead and won’t keep you safe. Really: what do you have to lose?

4 Responses

  1. Yes! Well said!

    This is the time for the hidden leaders to lead. William Bridges talks about the three stages of transition – endings, neutral zone and new beginnings. It’s in the neutral zone chaos and disorientation that the hidden leaders can emerge to create a new beginning. And if they get together, they can create an emergent new economy and opportunities for themselves and those willing to risk following them.

    Thanks for the clear message to us all.


    Vickie Gray
    The Adaptive Coach

  2. Love your advice to take ownership, invest in yourself and find people to join your cause. If that behavior is risky in your organization, your elephant will soon be a dinosaur anyway. The step after being a survivor doing the job of 3 others is turning out the lights and locking the door. Then the bad news is, the ones who wer elet go have a headstart on finding their dream job. You may not be able to catch up.

    If we adopt your radical idea of paying for training ourselves we might be more fiscally responsible and more creative in the ways we choose to learn. Could I seek out a mentor rather than go to an expensive conference that’s 2/3 party and 1/3 learning? Could I partner with customers and suppliers to improve processes?

    We might not have corporate jets and million dollar bonus plans, but many of us spend more on cable TV annually than we do on our own development. It’s time to challenge our own priorities. We need to invest in ourselves.

    Thanks for the inspiration Janine.

  3. You are spot on, Ray…especially your description of the “bad news” for survivors.

    I appreciate your comparison on investment in ourselves to cable TV–I would guess that most of us write that check (or send it electronically) each month without even thinking. And great examples of alternatives to conferences and training; there are many, many available routes at much less cost.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  4. Thanks for this reminder, Vickie…seems like we’ve been in the neutral zone for a long, long time. Noting the importance of ‘getting together,’ seeing possibilities and creating opportunities is the crux of moving toward the new beginnings…and movement is the key.

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