Sweeping Elephants Under Carpets

In my coaching practice, if I had a dollar for every time I hear about someone noticing an issue which needs addressing, yet that person chooses to remain silent, I could spend the rest of my days in absolute luxury.  I am NOT exaggerating.

Sweeping problems under the carpet

As a coach, it can be frustrating to see the number of lost opportunities, wasted efforts and untapped potential that slips by the wayside every day in organisations, simply because of a lack of communicated feedback (or feedforward, as so aptly described by Marshall Goldsmith).

Whether it is raising awareness in a colleague of the impact they are having on themselves and the group when they dominate the airspace, or having the courage to speak up  about the impact of the latest policy on customers – it doesn’t matter which way we look at it, ‘noticing’ but saying nothing causes blockages and lost opportunities.

The irony is, although it can be uncomfortable to have these ‘crucial conversations’, (sometimes about the elephants in the room) they can prevent things being swept under the carpet.

But why does this happen so often? If people are constantly noticing things (and actions, systems, and processes) that are not working, and continually do nothing about it, what is getting in the way of this?

My impression is that it usually comes down to one word. Fear. Organisations are literally seething with people experiencing some degree of fear.  Fear of not fitting into the ‘tribe’ they are a member of, fear of saying the wrong thing and upsetting the powers that be, fear of humiliation, of being vulnerable or of standing out.  And I get it – I have experienced this fear first hand.

But what are the unintended consequences of noticing but doing or saying nothing?

For one, all the expended energy that could be channeled towards positive solutions and a way forward, instead manifests in frustration, avoidance, wasted time and energy. Ultimately, it can even cause the downfall of organisations.

I have no doubt the demise of ENRON, for example, could have potentially been avoided if what was being noticed by those within the organization had been voiced and acted upon sooner.

Honesty is quite different to blame, and having the courage to voice it is rarely regretted. Realising every one of us holds more power than we think can bring with it a sense of obligation. Even a quiet whisper can make a big difference. And feedback or ‘feedforward’, with the right intention, supported by an individual’s or organisation’s best interests, can have a significant positive impact.

I am reminded so much of the following quote by George Bernard Shaw:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Leaders have an opportunity to model a culture of frankness and skillful feedback. We also set the tone for what happens in our teams and in our companies.

The next time you notice something in your organisation you sense is holding a person or team back, ask yourself the following questions:

If the tables were turned, would I want someone to talk to me about it, or would I be happy they stay quiet and do (or say) nothing (or worse, tell others about it).  Putting ourselves in their shoes can bring action where there is indecision. 

What will the benefits of addressing this be?

What are unintended consequences if I do not?


  1. Channon Stewart on June 14, 2013 at 5:00 am

    Hi Suzi,

    How are you? I really enjoy getting these, do you have a way of including social media links on your blog so that I can share them via LinkedIn etc. Similar to what we include in our e-signature as below:

    [cid:[email protected]]

    Just a thought ☺



    • The Leader's Digest on June 19, 2013 at 2:16 am

      Hi Channon,

      Thanks so much for your feedback, it’s great to hear you are enjoying the blog! We are working on social media plug-ins so will let you know when that happens – in the meantime you can copy and paste the link/URL to your preferred platform. Hope that helps! Keep in touch 🙂 Suzi

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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