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Supporting organisations to bridge the gap between strategy and action at moments of change, making sense and shaping conversations with Big Pictures.


What is the cost of leaving a team’s elephants in the shadows?

julian burton


At a recent meeting I noticed my frustration in the way that we kept going off topic; I was getting tense, felt awkward and hot under the collar. I was trying very hard to work out what was best to say, hoping that no one could see the turmoil I was experiencing. In hindsight I wonder what impact I had on the other people in that meeting. And with all that going around in my head (and my body) I wasn’t able to be fully present in the meeting. In the end I felt sad that it was safer to keep quiet.

Continuing the theme of my last post on the impact of the shadows and unconscious dynamics on the quality of meetings, I’ve been thinking a lot about how often the biggest unspokens, the elephants in the shadows, can often be the behaviours of someone senior. It can take a lot of courage to bring such behaviours to their attention. Everyone in a meeting may be painfully aware of them, yet it’s far too unsafe to speak about. It can be what some people call a “CV moment”.

Have you been in a meeting recently where you have sat in silence, feeling unable to say what you really think, exchanging nervous looks, as if to say “OMG, this is intolerable!” while feeling it too risky to speak up? When people fear to give their team leader or manager feedback on how they are behaving, it can create an atmosphere of unarticulated frustration, confusion and resentment. It is possible for this to lead to a culture of low morale, "resistance" and even sabotage.

How can we stay on task and focus on what needs to be achieved when these kinds of unconscious dynamics are going on in the shadows at every meeting? I often hear that anything to do with emotions and relationships at work is called the “soft stuff” and not taken seriously. Why, for goodness sake?! It’s actually the hard stuff. And not embracing the hard stuff can cost us a tremendous amount of our time and energy, managing the confusion and uncertainties that avoiding it creates. And what is the financial cost of all this for an organisation?