It’s Time to Face the Elephant In The Room — Again
Listen to Episode 175:
Episode 175 Transcript:
Pam Harper: It’s Time to Face the Elephant In The Room — Again. — How can you lead meaningful conversations to promote opportunity and racial equity in the workplace? Listen to this episode of Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper.
Chris Curran: This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth, On the web at www.businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. And sitting right across from me, as always, is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. It’s great to be with you again, and as always, the purpose of our podcasts is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate momentum for themselves — and for their companies — to their next level of game-changing innovation, transformation and growth.
So Pam — here we are again. Racial injustice and racism are at the forefront of the world’s attention, this time sparked by the killing of George Floyd and other black Americans. This situation is not only horrific; it’s frustrating because this issue seems to have a pattern – something terrible happens; there’s a crescendo of noise, and then the issue goes back to becoming an elephant in the room again. We’ve got to change the game if we’re going to end this cycle.
Pam Harper: It’s a huge issue, to be sure. While we as leaders can’t change the whole world, we can make a game-changing difference for our own lives and the people impacted by our companies and organizations. This starts and continues by leading what we call “critical conversations” to confront the elephants in the room that are keeping the status quo in force. These are the issues that everyone knows exist but nobody wants to talk about. Done effectively, these courageous conversations can lead to new insights about ourselves and others. That in turn can lead to new decisions and new actions that put us on a new path for creating new opportunity and equity for all.
For instance, back in 2016 Chris Rock decided to face racial injustice and racism in the entertainment industry. He did it head-on in his opening monologue as host of the Oscar Awards. It was a powerful moment, and it was a game-changer. It sparked conversations in the Academy that led them to decide and take action to change their criteria for membership, nomination and voting process.
We actually took this as an opportunity to keep the conversation alive about the critical importance of addressing elephants in the room. You can listen to his monologue by going to Growth Igniters Radio.com episode 175 and clinking on the link in “Resources.”
Scott Harper: We’ll also have a link on that page to Jimmy Fallon’s elephant-busting opening Tonight Show monolog on June 1, 2020. He addressed the controversy that has erupted over his blackface impersonation of his friend Chris Rock years ago on Saturday Night Live. He apologized and immediately acted upon his pledge to hold himself accountable for deepening his understanding of racial injustice through frank and emotional conversations with the president of the NAACP and others.
Scott Harper: So with that in mind, please listen with Fresh ears to the conversation that Pam and I had about what it takes to lead meaningful conversations to confront – and keep confronting – the elephant in the room about racial justice and opportunity in the workplace.
Scott Harper: So Pam − we just watched the Academy Awards ceremony again this year, and this year, it was pretty different… It was exciting.
Pam Harper: New pictures in the paper…
Scott Harper: There were new pictures in the paper. Usually on the morning after, we read about the best actor, the best actress, best picture… This year, the headlines were pretty different…
Pam Harper: “Chris Rock Rocks!”
Scott Harper: “Chris Rock Takes on Diversity.” The elephant in the room was that the Oscar nominations had no people of color in them. This year, people got pretty angry about that.
Pam Harper: It was a huge issue. Of course, the elephant in the room − the things that people weren’t talking about − that room was more than the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. It was, of course, being played out in a very large arena, and had been going on for quite a while. The thing that, to me, is interesting about this is that, first of all, elephants exist in every industry and in every company. It’s inevitable because it’s a human issue.
Scott Harper: The Academy Awards elephant is just an example.
Pam Harper: That’s right. It’s a great learning experience for us, because many people have been following it. I think the first thing that really struck me about this was that we all need to deal with this issue of elephants in the room.
Pam Harper: Even though it doesn’t need to be stated, it needs to be stated that the larger the elephant, the more important it is to get it out there. How we deal with the elephants in the room − our secrets as it is − is often a defining factor in whether or not we’re going to achieve success.
Scott Harper: Right; making a decision about what to do is really important. Here, Chris Rock had to make a decision: what role was he going to play in this drama of the lack of diversity?
Pam Harper: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well let’s take this; let’s explore it a little bit, because there were different choices that Chris Rock could’ve made.
Scott Harper: Well sure.
Pam Harper: First of all, of course, it wasn’t just his decision to make alone. Everybody had a role in this. The Academy, for instance, had to make some decisions about what they were going to do. In digging around on this, I read an article in Variety that was talking about the fact that, of course, the first thing they did when it became closer to the time when the show was going to go on, is they had to find out if Chris Rock was going to follow some of his colleagues like Will Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and others, and walk, or whether he was going to, in fact, be the host.
Scott Harper: That decision that Chris Rock made to go ahead and be the host − be part of the actual formal program − has ripple effects.
Pam Harper: One of the things, first of all, is that again, the Academy is making the choices as well.
Scott Harper: Right.
Pam Harper: There’s the decisions that the Academy is making, the decisions that Chris Rock was making, and even the decisions of the viewers to tune in.
Scott Harper: Well that’s right.
Pam Harper: If you think about that.
Scott Harper: Yeah. By being the host, he put his voice in the room.
Scott Harper: He was able to, in some small way, take control of the issue, bring it to the fore and say “Okay, here it is. What are we going to do about it?”
Pam Harper: What would’ve happened − let’s talk about what would’ve happened if he had boycotted.
Scott Harper: If he had boycotted, his voice would’ve been absent.
Pam Harper: It would’ve actually… not only would his voice have been absent, but it would have encouraged a rage. The more that people run away, it sends a message as well. Everything you do sends a message.
Scott Harper: “We’re going to avoid this.”
Pam Harper: “We’re going to avoid this, we’re not going to face it,” and the Academy Awards − the Oscars − would’ve gone on.
Scott Harper: Yeah. That’s what he said.
Pam Harper: He was right.
Scott Harper: Yeah.
Pam Harper: It would’ve gone on, because he actually talked about the choices that he had to make. That was a brave thing to do.
Scott Harper: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Pam Harper: The fact was that it would have encouraged that elephant to only grow bigger.
Scott Harper: Of course, another decision he could’ve made that probably would have made an even bigger and more vicious elephant would have been to have been the host, but to have been the funny man and gloss over the issue, and sort of danced around the issue − not really taken it head-on. That’s…
Pam Harper: “We don’t want to talk about this, we don’t want to offend anybody.” That is promoting the elephant in the room for sure.
Scott Harper: In many companies that we’ve been in and that we’ve helped, that is exactly what people do. They know something’s going on, but…
Pam Harper: Not after we help them. [laughs]
Scott Harper: Not after we help them − but when we come in, they know something’s going on. They’re not addressing it. That’s another decision.
Pam Harper: That’s right. The decision here is “What is my role going to be?” Really, the more that you look at the ripple effects, the implications of any decision you make, it makes it that much clearer what you have to do. Recognize also that Chris Rock had to decide whether he was going to be okay. He was a man on a mission. That also goes to a point, which is that the audience was not always comfortable with what he was talking about. It’s okay; you know? If you’re there to make people think, discomfort is always part of that conversation. We’ll talk about that later. Right now, what I want to emphasize is that the decisions we make have real implications, real ripple effects, and you have to watch for that. The third thing that I think we can really see is that there’s always a reason why elephants grow.
Scott Harper: Yeah. Well, we know that the elephant in the room is bad, you know, that people should face issues and work it out together. Leaders go to a great deal of effort to make comfortable environments for people to face issues.
Pam Harper: We all do.
Scott Harper: Okay. We know we should be doing it. But why not? Why, in every environment we’ve ever gone into, do we encounter elephants in the room?
Pam Harper: Because number one, again, it’s a human issue.
All the things that go into being a human factor into this. Over the years, this has been something that I’ve really specialized in. I’ve looked at all the reasons, and I’m sure I still will find more if I keep on looking; I will.
In fact, awhile back, we wrote a report called How to Take Control of the Elephant in the Room, where we talked about how to spot the elephants in the room and how to understand more about what feeds them. One of the things we don’t discuss so much in that report is what’s behind all those symptoms. Which, essentially, is fear of vulnerability.
That’s a good place for us to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll talk more about how this fear of vulnerability plays out when facing down elephants in the room. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. As always, we focus on enabling visionary C-suite leaders to accelerate momentum for game-changing innovation, transformation, and growth.
Scott Harper: You know, Pam, Neuroscientists tell us that when we’re in a crisis it’s natural for our brains to go back to tried and true ways of dealing with similar situations. This can present a real challenge to visionary leaders – especially in these turbulent times.
Pam Harper: rules no longer apply and we’re in the uncharted territory of today. That’s where we come in as strategic growth advisors. Our clients have told us that we’ve helped them gain clarity, frame their challenges so they can make new, more powerful decisions, and most importantly take new actions that have led to game-changing results. You can learn more by reading our success stories and testimonials on businessadvance.com.
Scott Harper: And to arrange for a brief call, click contact us at BusinessAdvance.com.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Today, Scott and I are talking about confronting elephants in the room, and some of the things that we’ve been learning from Chris Rock and the Oscars, and especially talking about the issue of what’s behind a lot of the symptoms we see when their elephants in the room exist. That is facing the fear of vulnerability.
Scott Harper: The fear of vulnerability − What is that? It’s feeling exposed? It’s feeling in danger?
Pam Harper: I think the best way to talk about it, just briefly right now, is from Brene Brown, who wrote a book called Daring Greatly. Her definition of vulnerability is a feeling of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s the combination of those things.
A good way to illustrate this is through a story you and I both know pretty well. That’s a company that we encountered. The leader was very visionary, and they were doing quite well. They were entering into new markets. The big, big challenge they were facing was that despite everybody being all jazzed up − they’re all excited about this, they see the why, all the things that you would expect people to be doing if they’re ready to make it happen − nothing was happening on schedule.
Their milestones were being missed, checkpoints were being missed, so it was clear to this leader that he had to do something different or he would be off track and it would be very difficult, or even impossible, to recover.
Scott Harper: Yeah. He was confused because his executive team was in agreement − they all agreed on the goals and milestones and concepts of what would happen. When he would check with them, they would say “Oh, we’ve got these other priorities that are also important.” But yeah, as you said, the signs all sent the message, “ding ding ding, something’s not right.”
Pam Harper: This is a common scenario for elephants in the room. Now, usually, nobody goes around saying “Hey, we have a bunch of elephants here.”
Scott Harper: Or “We’re going to avoid having a conversation with you.”
Pam Harper: That’s right. This is something that would be an indicator that it might be happening. In this case, in the course of the project, we were able to unearth some very important things. First of all, we were able to gain agreement on both sides that it was important for us to come in and talk with people.
Pam Harper: Here’s what we found out. On the side of the executives, what was that?
Scott Harper: It was really interesting, because not only were they not really talking to our client, they weren’t talking to each other. Over and over, as we spoke to each one individually, a theme came out: “I’ve got obstacles here that are really beyond my control that are preventing me from doing the things that need to happen. I don’t know how to deal with them.”
Pam Harper: They were not certain; there was the uncertainty element.
Scott Harper: There was the uncertainty element; and also “I should be able to handle this.”
Pam Harper: The risk of looking incompetent. And then, emotional exposure?
Scott Harper: It was “if I talk about this, am I going to feel weak? Am I going to be perceived as not valuable? What’s going to happen?”
Pam Harper: Exactly. Now, take that in parallel. You’ve got the people you’re talking about, and on the other hand, the leader, in this case, was saying “I don’t know the best way to handle this. If I push too hard, the one thing I know is, I fear losing people that are essential to our success.” He highly valued them. Again, it goes back to uncertainty. And risk. And the emotional exposure. “I like to know that I’m in control.”
Scott Harper: “And I can make things happen.”
Pam Harper: I can make things happen. It took a lot of trust for him to decide to work with us. And with them. The good news is that we were able to help them and we provided them with a safe environment, and people realized that they actually did want the same things. The elephants in the room came out. They were willing to begin to talk with each other and actually be honest about what was happening. Through this, they were able to collaborate with each other on solutions that they never thought they could do before. The momentum they gained was tremendous, and they accelerated their deadlines and their goals by six months, which was worth millions of dollars.
Scott Harper: That’s the key − is to really work through the issues of vulnerability.
Pam Harper: Remember that the bottom line is there’s always more to the story of why something’s happening. The vulnerability piece, the being willing to have these conversations that are really critical, is what we call critical conversation. Before you can make decisions that are effective about what to do next, these critical conversations are essential.
Scott Harper: Well, that’s right, because what really is going on most of the time is far beyond the symptom, the thing that people don’t like that may bring them to the breaking point of saying “We have to do something about this.” Because the folks who aren’t talking to each other have their own perspectives, it’s kind of a secret and you have to peel back all the layers and get to all the things that are going on. Then, when they’re out on the table, then you can actually do something.
Pam Harper: That’s a good place for us to take another quick break. When we come back, we’ll talk more about critical conversations and answer some of the questions that people have asked us about how to foster them. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − on the web at www.businessadvance.com. Pam, we were just talking about our report, How To Take Control Of The Elephants In The Room, which people can download by going to www.growthignitersradio.com, Episode 175, and going down to resources. What are three reasons that people should read the report?
Pam Harper: The first is that spotting the elephant in the room is probably one of the more difficult things to do, because it can look like different things. We spoke about one way that it appears, but it can be others.
Scott Harper: People may not be even aware that there is an elephant in the room.
Pam Harper: Yes. A second reason is that we talk about the food that feeds these elephants − that makes them grow big. You want to find that food and take it away as soon as possible. This report does talk about that.
Scott Harper: Starve them out. Okay.
Pam Harper: The third is a great reminder of how you can actually take control of the elephants in the room. It’s a great starting point.
Scott Harper: Okay. Go to www.growthignitersradio.com, select Episode 175, and request your complimentary copy of the report, How to take Control of the Elephants in the Room. While you’re there, check out our other free resources and other episodes of Growth Igniters Radio.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Today, Scott and I have been talking about confronting the elephants in the room and some of the lessons we’ve learned from Chris Rock at the Oscars and our own experiences. We’re dedicating this segment to answering your questions − some of the questions that we’ve been asked about how to deal with critical conversations, as we call them, before you make the decisions, how to take control of the elephant in the room.
Scott Harper: Okay. The first one is, “All right, I know that there’s something going on, and I sense that there’s an issue. How do I start this conversation, this difficult conversation?”
Pam Harper: The first thing is you have to decide who everyone is that you need to include. Sometimes, it seems like it’s just the people that are immediately surrounding you, but especially if you’re dealing with an issue that might include a partner − whether it’s a joint venture partner, whether it’s a strategic alliance partner, or whether it’s a provider of services − you have to make sure that you’ve got everybody involved who needs to be involved, the stakeholders.
Scott Harper: Right. That’s so critical.
Pam Harper: The other thing is, once you’re pretty well assured that you have those people, is to speak with the individuals ahead of time to help them feel safe. A lot of times what we’ll find is that if we ask “Is this working for you?” They’ll say “No. The situation is not working for me, but I don’t know what to do.” Going back to the fear of vulnerability, if you offer them a way to come forward, we want to make things better. People do want to improve the situation.
Scott Harper: Okay. And in those individual conversations, you may find that they know people who need to be included that you may not know. It adds richness to that conversation.
Scott Harper: Another question we had is, “How do we keep these conversations from turning into a blaming session?” Like, “It’s your fault, no it’s your fault, no it’s their fault…”
Pam Harper: That’s right. The first thing I want to say is that, to me, that is not candor. Candor is not finger-pointing.
Pam Harper: It generally tends to work best when we’re talking in a way that builds trust. Then we need to set the stage by looking at it from a positive outcome − “what is it that we want to get from this conversation” − and to approach it in a spirit of collaboration.
Scott Harper: Seek something that everyone can agree on and contribute to.
Pam Harper: That’s right. Even if you go back to the Academy Awards, the Academy Board, according to the articles, has already started that process of diversifying beyond lip service and taking concrete actions. Collaboration has been a part of this, I’m sure. Of course, it’s too late for this year’s awards, but they’re going to have to keep the momentum going on the collaborative discussions in order for the big improvements to happen over time.
Scott Harper: Okay. You talked about creating a safe environment for the conversations. That’s nice in theory, but it doesn’t always feel safe. How can leaders who want to have that greater conversation create that safe environment?
Pam Harper: It starts with bringing people in to you. We talked about having this invitation to join in. Once people are together, it’s about setting ground rules and saying “Look. This is going to be a positive conversation – no finger-pointing.”
“There’s plenty of things to go around. What we want to do is to seek an outcome that’s going to get us towards that big purpose that we’re trying to accomplish together. At the same time, as a leader, it’s important to keep track of not just the content, but the nonverbal language. In our last episode, I spoke about a time when I faced down a group that was definitely angry about some of the things that were going on.
Scott Harper: I remember you telling that story. They were crossing their arms, they were frowning, they were not looking at you.
Pam Harper: That’s right. What became important to me was to create a safe environment to enable these people to feel comfortable talking about what was going on. I chose to disclose. I chose to tell them why I was there. That provided something of a safety. I told them “Look. I’m here to help you, ultimately.” I had been able to provide them with enough other cues that I was not some evil spy. Providing that trust, and it comes from not just what you say, of course, but it comes from the way that you say things, the way you look when you’re talking. It’s nonverbal language as well as verbal language. That all contributes to that sense of safety that takes down the level of risk and that fear of vulnerability that people talk about.
Scott Harper: It does. Also, another thing that we’ve spoken about multiple times is, in a conversation, especially when there are multiple people, monitoring not just the content and the nonverbal language, but who’s talking and who isn’t talking.
Pam Harper: That’s right. You have to keep an eye out on everybody. It’s a little bit like patting the head and rubbing the tummy. Too much attention paid to what people are doing, and you’ve lost focus on the topic. Too much focus on the topic, you lose your ability to pay attention to what people are doing that can give important clues about what they feel. It’s constantly monitoring. The other thing I’ll add is injecting a little bit of a note of humor [can really help].
Scott Harper: Like Chris Rock did.
Pam Harper: Chris Rock injected humor, some of it pretty rough, and it was helpful. Did it totally eliminate the awkward silences? No. It didn’t, because he was making people uncomfortable on purpose, I think.
Scott Harper: Right, to make something happen. The thing that he also did that other people can do when they’re having these conversations is that he made his statements less accusatory. He said, “Look, we have this issue. There is an issue of lack of diversity, but it’s not malicious.” He called it like this: it’s a sorority discrimination. “Ronda, we like you, but you’re just not a Kappa.”
Pam Harper: See, a little bit of humor.
Scott Harper: He used humor to soften the blow; the point he was making is that there is a problem, but nobody is evil here. We have to really focus on what we want to happen.
Pam Harper: It sets a tone for safety, and safety is the foundation for any critical conversation to be successful.
Scott Harper: This brings us to the next question, which is “Okay, there’s all these things we have to keep track of. When should we be thinking about bringing in somebody to help us with this issue?”
Pam Harper: The more sensitive the issue and the more emotionally charged it is, the more important it becomes, a greater potential upside there is to bringing somebody in who’s experienced with finding the issues, being able to notice what’s going on, being able to pat the head and rub the tummy at the same time, and generally collaborate with everybody in the sense of saying “I’m going to help you to create that safe environment so you can feel vulnerable, so we can amp up the nature of the conversation and really make the things happen that we want to have happen that are going to be big stakes.”
Scott Harper: If there are disparities in power, obviously it can also help because it sort of puts a buffer in.
Pam Harper: It depends on the issue, I will say. There are times to go it alone. If you are dealing with your peers and you are good at all the other things we were talking about … it’s something that, again, it’s an escalating thing. You have to choose when you’re going to bring somebody in. The more complex the issue is, and the higher the stakes, the more it makes sense to bring somebody in.
Scott Harper: Okay. Pam, we’ve talked about the elephants in the room and the things that feed them and some of the things that can be done to diffuse the situation and move forward. Any final thoughts in this episode?
Pam Harper: What Chris Rock demonstrated was the courage it takes to be vulnerable and call out the elephant in the room. This courage is necessary in any organization to open up the conversations that are going to be a springboard for the decisions and all the actions that follow. The truth is the only way the elephants are really going to be eliminated is to thoroughly address the issues that are feeding them. This is just one of the decisions that we, as leaders, need to make in order to accelerate momentum on our journey to success year after year.
Scott Harper: Thanks, Pam, and thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, download the report How to Take Control of the Elephants in the Room, share on social media, find out about upcoming episodes or open a conversation with us, go to growthignitersradio.com and select Episode 175.
Pam Harper: Until next time. This is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success and leaving you with this thought.
Scott Harper: What elephants are lurking in the corners of your rooms, and how are you going to bring them out?