Dealing with Organizational Elephants

Hello Everyone 

Over the course of my career I have had several types of difficult conversations, topics ranging from personal hygiene, performance improvement, tardiness, absenteeism, inappropriate behavior to the dreadful termination.  

With that, I'd like to share some tips and tools to help you navigate difficult conversations.  


Learning Objectives

How do you confront problems that arise in the workplace? Do you address employees who have missed commitments or may be exhibiting inappropriate behavior, or do you avoid them?

This Dealing with Organizational Elephants will help you:

  1. Define what and when to have a difficult conversation.

  2. Identify your natural approach or preferred “style” to dealing with challenging conversations.

  3. Learn a five phase model for holding challenging conversations.


What Exactly is a Difficult Conversation?

"A difficult conversation is a situation in which at least two parties are engaged where (a) there are differing opinions,   perceptions, and needs/wants, (b) feelings and emotions run strong, and (c) the consequences or stakes for us are significant".

                                                      – J. Russell (2009)

~ aka~ 


What's Your Style?

 Take the quiz!

Quiz: What's Your Type?

Take this simple quiz to help you learn more about how you communicate and how you handle difficult conversations.

Please be sure to slide the scale (pink dot) to the left to Disagree or to the right to Agree.


The Peacekeeper

The Peacekeeper

Peacekeepers’ don’t like arguments or conflicts. They skirt around issues, rather than getting to the point, and try to keep everyone happy. The problem with this approach is that although everyone feels ‘listened’ to, the underlying issues never really get solved.  The colleagues who are not getting along continue to snip at each other and team members who are arguing over ‘whose job it is’ to perform a certain task never really get the clarity they need. 

 As a manager or team leader, however,you need to get more comfortable dealing with conflict and to take responsibility for getting the issue resolved.

The Avoider

The Avoider

Avoiders’ are the ostriches burying their heads in the sand and hoping the problem will just go away. This is all too often the approach taken by managers to issues around poor performance. They brush it under the carpet, either picking up the pieces themselves or hoping others in the team will fill in the gaps. Performance reviews get delayed because they don’t really want to have the conversation. The trouble with this approach is that it can quickly lead to resentment as staff see their colleagues getting away with murder. At worst, it can cause a domino effect, with previously high-performing employees taking their foot off the gas because they know there won’t be any consequences. 

Avoiders can help themselves by building strong relationships with the people they manage, so that it is easier to address difficult issues when they arise.

The Bulldozer

The Bulldozer

Bulldozers steam straight in when there’s a difficult conversation to be had. They say exactly what they think, leaving people in no doubt about where they stand. The problem with this approach is that those on the receiving end often see it as aggressive. Their hackles rise and they quickly stop listening and become defensive. People who are being ‘bulldozed’ also don’t feel listened to – which means that you as a manager don’t always get the full picture. Is someone failing to meet their targets, for example, because they don’t have enough resources or because another department is putting barriers in their way.

Managers who fall into this category need to make sure they are not making assumptions and can benefit from developing an awareness of how they may be perceived by others.

The Professional

The Professional

Professional communicators understand that if a difficult conversation is handled well, it can lead to a win-win situation. They think ahead about how they will handle the situation, listen carefully to what the other person has to say and retain an open mind. A good example would be a manager who has to turn down a request from one of their team to go on an expensive external training course. They will explain fully the reasons why this is not possible, but will have already thought about some alternatives they could offer, such as job shadowing, internal coaching or a stretch assignment. The employee may still be disappointed at the refusal, but will leave the conversation assured that they are valued and that their manager actively wants to support their development. 

Managers who already have these communication skills under their belt can improve even further by treating each conversation as a learning experience, thinking about what went well and how they might handle things differently next time.

The Dos and Don'ts of Managing Organizational Elephants


  • Nip problems in the bud before they become complicated


  • Mislead the employee
  • Deny employee the opportunity to improve performance
  • Damage the productivity and efficiency of your workplace
  • Lower the morale amongst team members


Roadmap To Taking Control of the “Elephant in the Room”



Step #1 - Prepare To Talk

  • The Big Question: What would happen if you don’t speak up, or address the issue?

  • Gather the facts

  • Set goals & expectations

  • Plan logistically

Step #2 - Design Your ABC Message

  • Accurate - Verify your facts

  • Brief - Prepare your script

  • Clear -Avoid language the other party may not understand

Step #3 - Deliver Your Message with Courage, Poise and Power

  • Be confident and focus

  • Be assertive yet caring

  • Watch the tone of your voice and body language

Step #4 - Managing Difficult Reactions

  • Give them a chance to be heard

  • Expect the unexpected

  • Listen carefully to what is being said, dig deeper if necessary

Step #5 - Respond Powerfully to Get Results

  • Paraphrase the expected behaviors you want to see

  • Be clear  in communicating the repercussions if expected behaviors are not met

  • Create a win-win situation

Top 5  Difficult Conservation Mistakes




Obviously, difficult conversations “elephants in the room” occur in all areas of our life and that they are at the heart of our professional lives.

Understanding our prefer style of having a difficult conversation coupled with an easy five step road map to navigate the process will help relieve some of the stress and emotions typically associated with dealing with conflict.

We learned, by having difficult conversations early,  we can prevent issues from reaching more formal stages that can have a negative impact on business including: lost business, damage to company reputation, higher staff turnover, missed targets, loss of morale, lower productivity, greater stress and even missed opportunities.

You are now on your way to taming those “organization elephants” with ease. 

Please take the following quiz to test your knowledge.

Thank you and good luck!

POST TEST - Are you smarter than an organizational elephant?

People with this communication style have the ability to get their point across but can be perceived as being aggressive:

  • The Bulldozer
  • The Avoider
  • The Professional
  • The Peacemaker

There is no need to create a script when preparing for a difficult conversation.

  • There is no need to create a script when preparing for a difficult conversation.

When is the best time to have a difficult conversation?

  • After the third time it happens, to be sure it's really an issue
  • Nip it in the bud as soon as possible before it escalates
  • Avoid having the conversation as it can cause unnecessary conflict in the workplace.
  • On Monday morning.

Which one of the following is a risk associated with not having a difficult conversation?

  • Avoiding difficult conversations may mislead the employee into thinking his/hers behavior isn't an issue.
  • Avoiding difficult conversations may lower morale amongst team members.
  • Avoiding difficult conversations may damage productivity and efficiency in the workplace
  • All of the above

It's best to have difficult conversations early in the morning.

  • It's best to have difficult conversations early in the morning.

People with this communication style know what to say, how to say and when to say it

  • The Bulldozer
  • The Avoider
  • The Professional
  • The Peacemaker

People with this communication style do not like arguments or conflicts, they strive to keep the harmony in the work place.

  • The Bulldozer
  • The Avoider
  • The Professional
  • The Peacemaker

The "C" in designing your ABC Message stands for

  • Careful
  • Clear
  • Conflicting
  • Concrete

People with this communication style tend to avoid difficult conversations

  • The Bulldozer
  • The Avoider
  • The Professional
  • The Peacemaker

Place the following steps in the order they should occur according to the 5 Step Road Map ( USING THE DRAG AND DROP METHOD, MOVE YOUR SELECTION UP OR DOWN THE LIST)

  • Prepare to Talk
  • Design your ABC Message
  • Deliver you Message with Courage, Poise and Power
  • Manage difficult reactions
  • Respond powerfully to get what you need and deserve

Elephants are gentle giants!

  • Elephants are/not gentle giants!




2-Minute Takeaway: The #1 Question to Ask Before Any Difficult Conversation - Elephant Conversations. (2016, August 01). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

(2016, August 25). Dealing with difficult conversations – what's your type? Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

ACAS (2012). Challenging Conversations and How to Manage Them. Retrieved December 01, 2016 from:

Learning Consultancy Partnership (2012). Handling Difficult Conversation at work, Survey Results and Guide. Retrieved December 08, 2016 from:

Online Academy - Elephant Conversations. (n.d.). Retrieved December 05, 2016, from

Top 5 - Difficult Conversation Mistakes. (2015, September 01). Retrieved December 01, 2016, from

Learning Aids

Elephant Conversations Club

Download a FREE Difficult Conversations Road Map and join the Elephant Conversation Club to receive tips on how to manage difficult conversations.

Difficult Conversations Road Map