The elephant in the room. The real reason teams don’t change

You’ve just announced a change you thought your team would welcome. Yet the moment after you got to the crux of how it will affect them a silence descended. Some of your audience caught each other’s gaze as if to confirm your message is indeed a figurative bombshell. Others winced. A few just stared at the floor. They knew something you didn’t, but no one dared say a word. ‘What just happened?’ you privately asked yourself.

Here’s the problem: what stops teams embracing change isn’t fully understood nor discussed. So when initiatives are announced they typically focus on only a small part of the case for working in new ways. Yet their success depends not only on teams’ understanding the need for change but their level of emotional commitment to it as well.

Enter the elephant and its rider

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt used the metaphor of the rider and the elephant to illustrate the disconnect we can all have sometimes between our head and heart.

He describes our rational, planning side as the rider and the emotional side that drives our behaviour as the elephant. “The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings.” Alignment between the rider and the elephant is key to success. It’s as simple as that.

Except it isn’t simple always.

When misaligned the rider stumbles into a battle they can’t win. Despite the road ahead looking clear and intellectually sound, the elephant is responsible for how we feel. Feelings shape what we do and how well we do it. In terms of getting things done, the elephant holds the reins, not as it first seems, the rider.

You know this already. Whenever you intellectually ‘get’ why action is needed but then procrastinate, or attend courses and talks that inspire you but not sufficiently enough to take action, you've met your rider and elephant!

Most change initiatives speak to the logical, rational side of people’s intellect. That’s the safe, evidenced-based ground leaders have been taught to walk on. But if the elephant is instinctively avoiding where the rider is pointing then tensions which can morph into resistance usually follow.

The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room is a metaphor for a difficult emotion most people have but don’t talk about; at least in meetings in front of their boss. This creates a tension. On the one hand talking about it would clear the air, yet on the other people habitually think it’s 'not the done thing' or they’ll be cast as a troublemaker if they raise it.

Unresolved tensions are difficult to hide. They gnaw away inside and when least expected show up in the form of resistance as people withdraw or feel reluctant and ambivalent about change. Leaders may or may not pick up on the subtle behavioural clues as described in the opening paragraph, but they will notice a slower than expected pace of change and a lack of belief in it.

If you’re in this situation consider these simple interconnected facts:

  • Your team has an innate ability to adapt to change, save for their habits of thinking that prevent this.

  • Thinking habits, or mindsets, become unhelpful often without people noticing.

  • Uncovering these and discussing them helps name the elephant in the room.

  • Once named it's much easier to realign the rider and elephant and make change happen more easily.

  • The naming-the-elephant discussion creates the conditions in which people say 'the penny finally dropped', 'things look and feel different now' and 'it makes sense to me now.' This leads teams to new answers that deliver results many, especially the elephants, don’t think are possible currently!

We hope this is helpful. What do you think, why do teams struggle to change?

Discover more in our short Informational Picture Essay on how results flow from the discussion teams have or our Insight Paper why some discussion can be misleading.

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