Note: "The elephant in the living room" is a common metaphor for situations in which people refuse to confront or even acknowledge a major issue even though everyone knows about it and it is causing serious problems.

Recently an executive asked me, "Is it okay to speak directly to my peers and subordinates? By that I mean is it good management practice to speak in a candid, forthright way about sensitive, difficult, or contentious issues with them?" Although the answer may seem intuitive, the question really goes to the struggle many individuals have in putting theory into practice. That is, while most people would concur that difficult issues such as disagreements over a course of action or poor performance should be addressed clearly and directly (the theory), the reality is that many are not comfortable doing so. It's so much easier at those moments to revert to the "politically correct" indirect methods that are the norm in many organizations (the practice). As a result, we find the proverbial elephant in the living room - or in this case, in the workplace.

There are many reasons why people engage in the indirect, "politically correct" approaches to problems. Do any of these explanations sound familiar to you?

- Our self-image is at odds with direct communication because we think of ourselves as "nice" people and we believe "nice" people don't upset others.
- We don't want to upset others because we are uncomfortable dealing with emotions.
- We buy into the saying "to get along you need to go along."
- We don't want to be "responsible" for another person's being called on the carpet for his/her shoddy work or lack of judgment.

How candid are the conversations in your workplace? Do people feel they can speak freely and honestly with each other, or do they fear real or imagined negative consequences, such as being labeled a troublemaker? In one organization I was called in to help, individuals who challenged or questioned decisions or policies often were told, "You're not a team player." I quickly learned that phrase was a code for this message: "If you don't keep your mouth shut, you can kiss your career goodbye." Imagine the chilling effect that practice has on candid conversations! It also has very real adverse consequences in the workplace. Here are a few of the ways that a lack of candor can hurt organizations:

  • Kill innovation and creativity
  • Shortchange employees by masking their actual performance
  • Create a toxic environment and a culture of mistrust and fear
  • Reward poor performance, causing productivity and morale to plunge
  • Foster a culture of mediocrity

Conversely, here are some benefits of a culture in which candid conversations are the norm:

  • Performance meets or exceeds clear performance expectations
  • Productivity is high as misunderstandings are addressed before they escalate
  • There is mutual trust among and between managers and employees
  • Poor performers leave because substandard performance is not tolerated
  • Constructive confrontation enables constant improvement

For ideas about how to rid the workplace of the "elephant" of political correctness and create a healthy environment in which managers and employees regularly engage in productive, realistic, and candid conversations, please see the article "How to Drive the Political Correctness 'Elephant' Out of Your Workplace" in the Business Solutions section of this newsletter.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.

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