May 30, 2018


The Research. Leaders Work Hard To Help People Avoid The Elephant In The Room


The single most important work leaders can do is to engage others to face and deal with the real challenges. The ones that matter most and are too often left alone. The ones that require real creativity, collaboration, thought and change. Every leader, up and down the chain, has these challenges and when leaders everywhere do this work it adds up. Big time. This is how leaders create more value, discover novel solutions and raise performance. This is the promise of leadership. It’s what we need most from leaders. Sadly, our research and work with over 20,000 leaders globally shows how uncommon it actually is.


Instead of engaging others to tackle the real challenges, we observe leaders very skillfully enabling people to “avoid the elephants in the room”. They use a set of masterful moves to talk around the real issues, soften the message or skip to solutions—without ever discussing the issues that matter most. We get it. It helps avoid the risk of conflict or upsetting others. It keeps things comfortable and it feels right in the moment, but it doesn’t create breakthrough results.

Every leader knows that the real challenges, problems or issues raise the pressure and increase the tension. As pressure goes up, they instinctively move to lowering it. The most common response we see to rising tension is “jumping to solutions”. Solutions lower the tension, make people feel better and maintain the comfort level. It works because the moment solutions are put on the table, people are off the hook. They don’t have to face what’s hard, they just have to go along and get along. They don’t have to face and own their part in the challenge.

Without ownership, the leader’s job is getting people bought in. Without ownership, solutions show up as “another thing to do.” Fearing this, leaders use different techniques to get people to act. We observe lots of “telling and selling”, excessive follow-up, micro-management, more meetings, taking on more of other people’s work. This all costs precious time that could be put towards other high value work. The work we really need leaders doing. Thousands of leaders have shared their pain and frustration with us. Most see no way out.


Remarkably, this pattern works okay for routine issues. But, it falls apart when things get real. Like the need to collaborate, engage the tough issues, build deep buy-in and drive change. Try this instead—

Lead With The Challenge
Simply put, leaders need to clearly articulate the problem or opportunity, support it with compelling data and reasons and get people thinking seriously about it. Leaders need to hold attention on the real issues and push people to then share their views, especially when they disagree. It starts with being buttoned up on the business case, but where it all happens is when people begin to internalize the nature of what they are facing and its importance to themselves and the business.

Share The Pressure
When people feel the same kind of pressure that leaders feel, their minds and creative capabilities are engaged. People are natural problem solvers but will often avoid them and take the easy way out. It’s up to leaders make sure this doesn’t happen. They need articulate how and why it’s important. The risks and the rewards. Making the connection to the business and to people personally is critical to them taking it seriously. It’s never a threat or theatrics. It’s about sharing and discussing tough realities, so people can face them together.

Create Open & Honest Dialogue
Everyone leader knows they need to have honest conversations. Conversations where differences are valued and discussed. Where conflict emerges and is managed. Where agreement and alignment are forged. It’s how buy-in is built. Part of the work of leadership is to hold people together through the tensions these conversations generate. Our research is conclusive, leaders back away from this tension far too soon. They underestimate people’s ability to take the heat and find common ground. They seem to forget the inner strength that it’s taken for the human family to get where we are.

Be Mindful, Be Strong
Engage isn’t a feel-good leadership. Everywhere, in every company, there is a cry for more leadership and complaints that leaders aren’t leading. We don’t disagree, but we also know that facing real challenges is hard work for everyone involved because it generates heat and raises discomfort. We also know it’s worth it because we’ve seen the results countless times. When people, regardless of their formal level of authority, lead with the challenge, share the pressure and have open and honest conversations, breakthroughs become possible. It’s hard, but this kind of leadership is worth it.

Cleary there is more… Stay tuned…