Healing the organisation’s wounds – the importance of naming the nasty elephants

perspectives Jul 25, 2017

One of the key characteristics of an adaptive culture is the practice of naming the nasty elephants. While this is a term commonly used in many organisations along with derivatives, including naming the “smelly fish”, it is often used to point to the need for groups of people to:

  • Have open and honest conversations
  • Discuss and deal with the “shadow” of an organisation’s culture (the stuff that holds us back that we may or may not know about but don’t explicitly talk about)
  • Get better at celebrating the stuff we do well and naming the stuff we need to do better
  • Create a safe culture to fail, learn and innovate
  • Embrace conflict and diverse perspectives

elephant in a room vintage style

In our previous blog – “Healing the organisation’s wounds – saying goodbye to the past”, we also spoke about elephants that continue to have a life after death, for example, the long shadow cast by a tyrannical leader who long since left the organisation.

Past elephants continue to live when the thinking and behaviours of many in the organisation remain fixated on that past event, regardless of the time that has passed and the changes that have been made. They can also give life to new elephants through too big a swing of the pendulum (for example responding to fraud issues by introducing an overly conservative approval process). A CEO we are working with came in after a CEO, perceived by many to be a bully, had left the organisation. The new CEO describes the feeling of needing to “tread on eggshells” and her challenge in holding people to account due to her commitment to undo the legacy of the previous leader.

Naming the elephants is a challenging and yet necessary part of supporting an organisation to heal its wounds and evolve its culture. Some of the challenges and opportunities in supporting this activity come to life are:

Challenge: Helping people to discern between elephants and flies

Elephants are the things (tough issues) people are uncomfortable talking about. Where there is a superficial understanding of what an “elephant” is, many will default to naming flies. Flies are the annoying things day to day that we would like to change and often talk about e.g. request for process improvement.

There is a need to ensure “naming the elephants” doesn’t turn into a “swatting flies” session full of complaints about superficial issues. Flies usually swarm where there are big elephants. What are the flies (symptoms) telling you about the elephants (real issues)?


Ask questions to find the elephant behind the fly. For example, the need for process improvement might point to a lack of collaboration and trust between frontline and service functions. The lack of trust is the real elephant.

Challenge: Lack of belief that anything will change

Elephants have been named but nothing has changed so why should I bother?


  • Support the act of naming the elephants to be a healing experience rather than a superficial process. The depth and authenticity of the conversation, especially the listening, will impact the level of healing achieved.
  • Ensure that actions are taken on points raised. An action could be as simple as an act of acknowledgement that people have felt they haven’t been heard in the past, through to specific actions that demonstrate the organisation is working as if the elephant has been extinguished.
  • While senior leaders have a role to play in “fixing” the elephants, often it takes broad action to reduce cynicism. How can you engage multiple levels of the organisation and a range of stakeholders to support required change?

Challenge: Naming the elephants has been punished in the past or we have a culture where this practice has never existed

Conflict Management


  • Publicly celebrate and reward those who speak up.
  • Don’t just sit there; if you agree that the elephant exists then speak up in support of those who named it! Too often the act of naming the elephant will be left to one courageous person while many others in the room have the same opinion.
  • Recognise the contribution of trouble makers, inarticulate voices and dissenters by being curious about their ideas and finding the positive intent behind their communication, no matter how it comes across.

Due to much of our conditioning around authority, leaders and those in positions of greater authority may need to model the behaviour of naming the elephants for a period of time before others take up the challenge. In our culture work, this is the single most powerful practice, that if done well can help an organisation to make significant progress quickly both from a business and a cultural perspective.

When done effectively, naming the elephants can create an environment where people can speak out about what is really important. We have seen the practice reshape strategy, and save millions by stopping projects that were not strategically aligned. We have seen people who have given up on organisations become revitalised and we have seen people who had given up on each other re-commencing deeper, more effective relationships. It is an organisational imperative to be able to have a mature conversation about what needs to change in order to be most effective. Naming the elephants is a leadership priority, a cultural priority, a business priority, and a strategic priority

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