The Elephant in the Room

December 28, 2019 / Comments (235)

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou

For the last 6 months I have been on a team which is planning what we believe will be very positive change for an organization. Even though this means taking on additional work outside of our regular schedules we are excited about the potential and very willing to put in whatever time it takes to reach our goal.  The CEO of the organization has been very supportive and consistently encouraging us to move forward with our plans.
That is until now. This week the CEO walked into our meeting and announced that another project is now taking precedence over our project in terms of funding and that we have to cut our budget by 1/3.

Some of the pieces of the old system were broken and have already been pulled out for replacement and we have no choice but to go ahead with our project. The team believes they have two choices. We can continue moving forward with the project as is and hope that we can get funding through another source, or we need to cut back our project to the point that when completed we will not have made any real progress and instead will be trudging along with another version of the same old system.

The Elephant in the Room
Now we get to what I perceive to be the elephant in the room. What has gone unspoken is that the CEO has become involved in the details of the project and is acting as the messenger between two different teams who are working at opposing goals. You may be thinking, so what, isn’t that the CEO’s job, to mediate between the groups?

In the short view, being involved in detailed budgeting discussions and playing messenger between teams may appear to be the role that the CEO needs to take in order to keep control of the finances and keep projects moving forward. However, in the longer view, what happens when the leader lets go of the role of the visionary leader and instead gets mired in the details.

What Happens When…
First, if a leader gets mired in the details and doesn’t hold out a strong vision then without even realizing it, and most likely not meaning to, the leader starts to take sides. Without a mutually agreed vision as a guide in the decision making process, people will always take sides.  It is a normal and natural response to see everything from our personal perspective. That very normal response by the leader sets up a competition of sorts and subconsciously encourages the team members or different teams to also take sides. When the teams take sides they can easily get stuck in thinking that there are only two ways to move forward, your way or my way. They can become blind to all the other possible solutions.

Second, without a strong vision being held up in front of people on a consistent basis, it is very easy for teams to get stuck working the same details over and over, arguing about personal opinions and never coming to a decision. When that happens, teams frequently bump up against time limits or get into a financial crunch. At that point there may be no other choice but to make a quick and expedient decision which generally only satisfies some of the people on the team. The team members who don’t get their needs met end up not as engaged and the organization as a whole suffers by being less effective and ultimately the decision that the team makes fails to truly meet anyone’s needs.

Finally what I perceive to be the biggest concern for leaders has to do with how the leader makes their teams feel. I know, I can almost hear you saying it, we are at work and we aren’t supposed to feel, or at least not show our feelings. But in real life we all know that it doesn’t play out that way. For instance, when the CEO walked in to our meeting after 6 months of supporting our plan and bluntly told our team that we had to cut our budget by 1/3 we immediately felt deflated and devalued.  The looks on people’s faces were at first flat and unexpressive as they quite obviously tried to contain their emotions. Then there was anger, frustration and fighting back. And then, worst of all, was the loss of trust in the CEO. How did the lack of trust show up? The team essentially ignored the CEO’s directive and started to talk about how they were going to work around it.

We all know that once a person loses trust that it is very difficult to rebuild. And we also know that without trust it is very difficult for a leader to influence people to take action. Very simply, without trust a leader cannot lead.

The Leader’s Paradigm
In coaching women leaders in technology, I have discovered that one of the most difficult things for leaders to learn is to value our role as leaders. For years we have been patted on the back and given promotions based on our technical knowledge or perhaps our understanding of process and of course, on what work we successfully complete. As a leader the paradigm for how we work and how we bring value to the organization shifts. We are expected to step away from the details and be the visionary, the encourager, the lead guide or perhaps the servant leader.

For many people, not just women, that paradigm shift can leave us feeling confused about our roles. We may feel like impostors, as though our work is no longer as valuable and by deduction that we are not as valuable. Or we may feel as though without the details that we can’t control what is going on and that can be a very scary place for a leader. It is a natural tendency to want to rush back into the details where it feels safe. As good as that feels initially, for a leader, that spells disaster.

As a leader do you ever feel like it is a struggle to get people to ‘get things done’? Do you ever feel a need dig into the details in order to feel comfortable and confident about a project? Have you ever lead a meeting where everyone either starred at you blank faced or were increasingly argumentative? If you find yourself in one of these situations then please, contact me, and let’s chat about how we can work together to build your self-identity as a leader and support you to

connect to your power,


Last modified: January 20, 2020

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The Elephant in the Room

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