The metaphor of carrying an elephant that only others can see (and we ignore or are unaware of) is for that stuff which, in the drama of a working relationship, appears to be just too big to discuss.
I drew this illustration while attempting to make sense of some experiences of conversational awkwardness within organisations. The dynamic of the conversations felt heavy and as though it were controlled by people’s judgements and ideas about each other and themselves. Despite an intention to have open, honest conversations in an environment of trust and respect, some important things remained unspoken.
A colleague pointed out to me the irony of having drawn this from an external perspective, implicitly locating myself outside the picture frame, like an objective critic. It was a helpful reminder to be open to feedback myself!
Disclaimer; All elephants appearing in this work are metaphorical. Any resemblance to actual pachyderms, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
When looking for possible explanations of human behaviour, we often revert to models of humanism or systems theory, which can tend towards overemphasising individual autonomy or environmental factors respectively. Iain Mangham advocates the dramaturgical model, which allows for the reciprocity inherent in our interactions – ‘it is the person who creates or sustains the influences to which [they are] to some degree subject’. This model suggests that we improvise our performances within ‘the often very broad limits set by the scripts society makes available’1.
On an organisational level, we can see the appeal of this model – the employee is tasked with a role to play, on a stage with a demanding audience, reading a script that allows varying degrees of improvisation.
But if ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’, do we pay enough attention to the actor behind the role, the person behind the job title? Do we respond to their attempted identification and development of that character? Or do we dismiss the question of motivation, reducing the answer to ‘Your Salary’2?
Every actor dreams of Hollywood and the riches it can bring. But there must be something else that drives them; something meaningful that gets them out on stage day after day, night after night, week after week. The performance, the timing and the delivery offer challenges whether the audience numbers 9 or 900. The audience reaction, the reviews and the applause offer vindication of efforts whether expended in The Old Vic or the old village hall. When an actor is on their stage, profit is no motive at all.
1 Mangham, Iain (1978) ‘Interactions and Interventions in Organisations’: Wiley and Sons, Chichester.
2 Alfred Hitchcock, “If [an actor] says ‘what’s my motivation?’ I say ‘your salary’”
Everyone loves a hero. In the ultimate hour of need the hero appears, saves the day, gets the plaudits and sleeps soundly in the knowledge that the world appreciates them. A very attractive role, if you get the chance to play it.
The benefits are numerous and immediate – an adrenaline rush, exposure in a flattering light, positive feedback, instant gratification. In a business context, there are further benefits – the normal rules of bureaucracy get relaxed, there might be paid overtime to fight the fire, maybe even a performance bonus for putting the fire out.
But is the role too attractive? It’s considerably more appealing to fight fires than prevent them. Is the idea of being a hero so appealing that on some level, we seek to create the conditions that require it?
A situation that seems to be impossible to act upon because it contains two opposing commitments.
“I’m putting a man on the moon!”
What makes a strategic narrative compelling?
We all know this Kennedy anecdote, but what was it that made these employees proud of their contribution and inspired to play their part?
In 1961 Kennedy told the world that USA would put a man on the moon and bring home back safely by the end of the decade.
Somehow this compelling story inspired people to act to overcome the impossible and gave them a clear vision and a sense of their role achieving it.
We’ve found that for a strategic narrative to be compelling it needs to be:
• meaningful to those hearing it
• about something people care about
• exciting, dramatic and inspiring
• believable (no matter how audacious it is!)
Use this picture with colleagues to initiate a discussion about the strategic narrative in your organisation. Ask each other the following questions:
Q: As a leader, how do you know that you have these qualities in your story?
Q: As engagement champions how can you support your leaders to build these qualities into their stories?
Q: What do your people really care about? What do they most need to hear?
Let us know what you found in the comments section (below).
How can you possibly engage people when they feel like this?
When change is done to people rather than with them they feel paralysed.
What happens in your organisation?