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3 myths that feed the elephant

When we avoid difficult conversations, we don't acknowledge the elephant in the room, but we do feed it.

5 min read




Passion and purpose bring people together even through conflict, but only to a point. When conflict starts to brew, it’s the leader’s job to address the elephant, yet leaders often use all kinds of tactics to avoid conversations that could prevent costly mistakes.

I’ve seen everything from changing job descriptions, stripping titles, hiring a new boss to deal with the incompetent employee, to shifting a nonperformer to another department to avoid a performance conversation rather than face the problem issue head-on.

The result of allowing or avoiding can be traced back to three culturally acceptable myths that we all seem to buy into. This article exposes the three myths that keeps the growing elephant unexposed.

Myth No. 1: We’re all adults

“We’re all adults” is a common phrase that is said when a leader doesn’t want to address an elephant in the room. While we might all agree that everyone is past puberty, what we fail to acknowledge is that age has very little to do with emotional maturity or self-awareness. Adults at every age do things that are very immature, reactive and emotionally irresponsible. Look at the news. Adults rampage workplaces with weapons. Incivility affects well-being and performance in every kind of industry. Political leaders resort to petty name-calling on social media, exhibiting very low levels of self-control and strategic thinking

What to do: Stop saying “we are all adults.” Shame is not a management tactic. Course-correction is. Look for observable behaviors that either align with your mission or misalign, and bring that behavior into the conversation to course-correct the unacceptable behaviors and elevate the professionalism of your department.

Myth No. 2: We have a job to do

We all have jobs to do. That’s a fact. The other fact is that adults lose focus when they feel threatened, wronged or misunderstood; the “job to do” takes a back seat to “protecting my turf.” The only time focus remains in job situations where focus is imperative to sustaining or protecting life; think 911 call centers, police, fire, and medical.

But rest assured, after the emergency, workplace drama ensues, even though there is still a “job to do.” That’s when the bickering, back-stabbing and gossip starts to undermine real teamwork. 

Underneath the “We have a job to do” slogan is one of identity. I’ve worked with countless professionals who have a belief that their identity can override their human nature.

You will hear something like, “We are educators, we are health care professionals, or we are C-suite executives” and it is followed with “and we have a job to do.” The fact is, sometimes we resent our co-workers, occasionally feel jealous and sometimes secretly enjoy someone else’s failure. Most of us simply don’t want to face our shadow.

Focusing on the job at hand is a good way to temporarily refocus your team, but they will still struggle if they can’t make peace with their own humanity, which includes emotions and feelings… wanted and unwanted, good and bad. 

What to do: Don’t let your need to keep your professional identity intact keep you from facing this very human reality. Notice your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Choose to confront the shadow side of yourself first so you can clearly help your team do the same. Yes, you are a nurse, educator, CEO or physician. So what? You are also a human, and humans are on a continuous journey of personal growth.

Myth No. 3: It’s all about ____________.

Fill in that blank with the following: customer, mission, client, patient or student.  Again, reminding the team that it’s all about ________works as a temporary reminder of our shared purpose, but trust me, when someone feels ostracized, criticized or disenfranchised, the focus on your mission, vision, values or customer takes a back seat to looking out for number one. 

Perhaps that’s why 12 cardiologists left the Heart Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center for Northside Hospital. I suspect either someone wasn’t listening or there was a conversation that needed to happen that didn’t.

Purpose, passion and reclaiming “Why” drives clarity and brings people together, but only to a point. Even mission-driven employees who “love the cause” eventually disengage if they lose their connection to themselves and to their fellow employees. Aversion to inner drama eventually overrides the desire to make the difference, achieve the purpose or fulfill the mission.

What to do: Build an environment of connection. Connection is the glue that holds purpose and passion in place. By connection, I don’t mean kumbaya naivete or a head-in-the-sand Pollyanna outlook. I mean civility — talking directly to the person with whom you have the beef. Teach employees to talk to their co-workers and counterparts instead of running to the boss to complain. Confront and course-correct.


Even though we are all adults, we all have a job to do, and we agree on our purpose, unaddressed issues feed the elephants and take up all the oxygen in the room. As a leader you must confront your own humanity by dealing with your emotional landscape first, so that you can address small issues that turn into costly mistakes.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018).  Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results.” Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at MarleneChism.com

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