These issues can occur in an organizational context as well, generally with the same result. As the leader of a sales organization, you are constantly having “conversations” with the field in order to direct activity, boost morale, address competitive challenges or accomplish some other important objective. The problem arises when an unmentionable issue, or “Elephant”, grows larger and starts to impact those conversations, eventually causing reps to hear “stop” every time you say “go”.
Let’s look at an easy example. Consider a company that has set up a compensation plan that rewards a group of sales representatives based on their performance to a revenue plan. What happens if the reps believe that their activity has little impact on their ultimate performance under their compensation plan? Whether or not it has basis in fact, that perception has the potential to become an Elephant if the leaders of that organization fail to acknowledge and deal with it directly and effectively.
Left unaddressed, that issue distorts or completely blocks any message sent by leadership asking reps to work harder or re-direct their activity in order to maximize their compensation. In fact, leaders who continue to talk as if the Elephant isn’t in the room will cause reps to believe that they don’t care about (or worse, don’t understand) the issue. In those cases, reps say the right thing in response to communications from leadership, but then they go through the motions rather than truly pursuing the activity wholeheartedly.
This might seem extreme, but every sales organization has a few Elephants, some are just larger than others. There is always some way in which the message from management (or marketing or finance) contradicts what the field “knows” to be true about the “real world”. Again, what the field “knows” will never be entirely accurate either, but the mere existence of this different viewpoint creates the potential for a crippling Elephant if not properly addressed.
The moral of the story is that leadership must always keep their collective and individual ears to the ground. When communicating to the field, the message should be clear and uniformly presented by all members of management. At the same time, a feedback loop should be developed to ensure that messages actually resonate with individual reps. Signs of distortion can indicate a wide variety of problems, including the possible presence of an Elephant. In those cases, it is imperative that leadership:
- Determine the source of the Elephant (management probably knows what it is, at least individually, but they might not have acknowledged it as a group);
- Look closely at that issue and determine the extent to which the message must be revised or a problem resolved; and
- Re-double efforts to correct any misperceptions in the field organization, generally through additional training or a more specific effort to find data to support the organization’s case.