The Thin Book of Naming Elephants

By Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea B. Mayfield

Review by Alice Waagen,
Workforce Learning

The value of The Thin Book of Naming Elephants is in opposite proportion to its size. This small book packs a large and powerful message: how to surface undiscussables for greater organizational success. The authors, Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea B. Mayfield, have contributed their collective years of HR and HRD consulting to give us a clear and concise how-to manual for taking those invisible elephants in the room and deciding what to do with them.

The elephants that plague our workplaces are those problems, issues or challenges that everyone knows about but that are controversial or prone to argument. Because of the embarrassment these issues can cause, they are ignored despite the fact that they are obvious to everyone. People will talk around the elephant but until the elephant is made explicit, it will remain or even grow larger. People will talk about the elephant, but often in gossip groups at the water cooler, again causing it to grow bigger and more taboo rather than naming it and eliminating it. Examples of big elephants can include a senior executive’s discriminatory behavior, a staff persons’ poor performance which is being covered up by a senior leader, failing financial results for the business, programs or services that are underperforming but are someone’s pet program, the list goes on.

Hammond and Mayfield describe real-world elephant situations, starting with the NASA’s Columbia accident in 2003. A number of analysis reports after the accident cite NASA’s broken safety culture contributing to this tragic accident. Questioning safety practices was NASA’s elephant in the room and not speaking explicitly about safety issues illustrates the way undiscussable elephants can truly harm an organization.

The authors continue to cite real elephant situations. Southwest Airlines is described as having a culture that positively addresses elephants. Enron is sued to demonstrate numerous negative elephant situations. Hammond and Mayfield dissect these case studies and extract from them checklists of questions you can ask to unearth elephants in your organization. They likewise describe leadership behaviors that foster elephants, such as the “saying/doing” gap seen at NASA and Enron. Fertile grounds for nurturing elephants are leaders who display hubris and arrogance and are screamers when challenged. These three qualities force people to withdraw and stop questioning the negative and damaging elephants that they see.

The final section of the book outlines strategies you can use to name elephants. These strategies are simple and pragmatic and include such good advice as creating a Name-The-Elephant award and using an ombudsman to gather data and identify the elephants. The authors even promote the use of an internal website that people can use to post their issues and concerns.

The Thin Book of Naming Elephants ends with the real impetus for naming elephants: the universal human needs for having your voice heard, being viewed as essential to a group and being seen as unique and exceptional. Elephants limit open expression and support the continuation of negative workplace behaviors. Naming elephants and dealing with them promotes open and respectful behaviors essential to growing a positive work environment.

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