Hunting the elephant in the room

“The fights are always vicious when the stakes are really low.”
But the big issues fester silently…
It is easy to debate the small stuff. Where there is no real money on the line, and no one has anything to lose. This kind of problem plagues nonprofits and other creative organizations. But it is tougher for groups to address larger, unspoken problems. Ones that involve serious discussion, thinking harder about creative solutions, or compromising on ideals we have long held. Few people want to open up that can of worms. Before you charge forward and try to tackle the elephant, consider a few key pieces of advice:

1. There is a time and place for everything

– Is there enough time left to discuss the issue? Bringing up difficult topics at the end of a meeting just leaves everybody with a bad feeling and a sense of foreboding for what comes next. Thorny topics are best addressed at the beginning of the meeting, when people have the mental energy to tackle them and generate solutions.

2. Have a clear target

– Picking fights on intangible topics is asking for trouble. Open-ended questions (e.g. “What is our mission?”) with no clear answer go nowhere but down. It is best to break these questions down into concrete segments that might be answered with a yes or no. “Which projects are worth going over budget?” could help clarify the mission for the organization.

3. Do not make it personal

– Dealing with difficult members of the group can be extremely dangerous. Humans have fragile emotions and bringing up issues without careful consideration can damage the dynamics of a group—permanently. Be sure to consult someone with experience in this area—not least a lawyer—in case the issue goes from the frying pan to the fire. Addressing bad behavior or problematic members are best done in writing, so that there is a clear paper trail of who said what.

So when you are in the jungle of debate, don’t be afraid to go after the wild things…but be prepared!

For more strategies and resources for dealing with difficult topics, check out the Service and Solutions page at Boardroom Buddha.

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