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elephant with rider

Talking to Elephants

Some of you may have read “Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard” by the Heath brothers. In case you need a refresher or you haven’t read the books, I found this Youtube video to be helpful. The Heath brothers talk about why it’s so hard to navigate change and how we have two different systems that rule our brains: the rational mind and the emotional mind.

Here is an easy analogy: the Rider and the Elephant. These are two modes of our brain that we use to make decisions and process information. The elephant is System 1, relying on intuition, emotion and fast automatic reactions. Then there is the rider who is System 2, relying on logic, memory and reflection and therefore slower to act.

Now let’s get to the more interesting stuff: how this comes to life in the real corporate arena. It may sound obvious, but sometimes we forget how we are at our core emotional beings. The Elephant and Rider framework helps us understand that in actuality, the Elephant often trumps the Rider when it comes to making decisions, because it’s bigger and more powerful. What this means is that oftentimes, business conversations and decisions are not primarily rational.

My executive coach has been using the Elephant and Rider framework to help me break down and analyze real scenarios that I was experiencing at work. It has been game-changing to actually practice this with coaching… I’d go as far as to compare it to taking the Red Pill in the matrix. By truly understanding this framework in the real workplace, you will be able to up-level your influencing skills and mastery significantly. Here are a few tips for how to do this.

#1 – Know Who You’re Dealing With: The Rider or the Elephant.

Recently, I heard an executive talk about how frustrated they were by people who don’t talk in facts and in hard truths. “Why can’t we just make decisions based on cold hard facts?” Here’s why: in business and in life, we are rarely making decisions based on rational conversations. If you step away from your own judgement on whether that is right or wrong and see it for what it is, you can start to operate at the next level of mastery and influence.

Despite our best intentions of keeping work “professional”, we are all humans with feelings and biases. That particular leader was wanting to engage with the Rider, the logical side, and have an intellectual debate. But the Rider isn’t actually the one in control most of the time. Here’s why…

The elephant always out-ranks the rider. 🤯

So the first experiment challenge for you is: how can you get better at identifying who you’re talking to, the rider or the elephant, when you’re trying to get work done?

  • How do you know if you’re talking to the Rider? The person is willing to engage at a rational level, talk through problem-solving with you, and align on the best outcome and take responsibility for their part of it. They don’t seem to have any hidden agendas or have any inner conflict. In other words, the elephant and the rider are generally aligned.
  • How do you know if you need to talk to the Elephant? The person is not willing to change their mind based on facts, no matter how true they are. There is an invisible resistance that you face with these people that you don’t really understand. They might even nod their head at everything you say and agree with you in a meeting and then act in the completely opposite direction afterwards. Sadly, this happens a lot at work.

Here’s the trick to talk to the elephant: first, get really curious about what that person really cares about, what are their motives, what are their incentives, what are their emotional needs. Try to empathize with what it’s like to be in their shoes. Understand how things look and feel from their perspective. Before you go into a meeting, think about the people you are meeting with and meeting them where they are. If some people aren’t ready to engage with you in a hyper-rational conversation, don’t try to force it on them. If some people are feeling afraid of making any major decisions right now, give them space while finding ways to still connect with each other.

If you have established trust in your working relationships, try to gently address the elephants in the room without judgement or manipulation. That’s when the real conversations start to take place, and all of a sudden… everything falls into place.

#2 – Give People The Benefit of the Doubt. 

We all have our stuff. Every single human being on the planet has things they’re dealing with, things they’re numbing, or things they’re avoiding. Some people share, and some people don’t. Creating a work environment that defaults to giving people the benefit of the doubt is the best way to systematically create psychological safetyHere is an experiment you could try: how can you give someone who is really getting on your nerves right now the benefit of the doubt? Could you see their elephant with more empathy and less judgement?

#3 – Lean into Connection over Efficiency. 

At our core, every single one of us has emotional needs that show up at work. During this pandemic, our emotional needs and mental health are becoming extremely important for us to maintain. The most tone-deaf leaders are the ones that are pushing their teams to the point of exhaustion during this pandemic while preaching rest and recovery. What if leaders took more time to understand the elephants in the room?

  • Prioritize connecting with your teams without an agenda. Whether it’s a social distancing walk or a 1:1 virtual coffee chat, create space for connection. I now dedicate around 20% of my week towards agenda-less connection times with my teammates and stakeholders. Every single one of us is busy, but it also never feels like a waste of time.
  • Before entering a meeting, try practicing 5 minutes of empathy for each person in that meeting. What kind of day are they having? What is their lockdown situation? What kind of work context are they dealing with? What’s most important for them right now? How can you help them?
  • Continuously ask yourself this question: What am I optimizing for right now? And is it worth it? For instance, if you’re optimizing for your personal promotional track, you’ll be focused on associating with high-profile projects and getting senior visibility. If you’re optimizing to get something out the door within the next few days, you’re plowing through and leaving a trail of dead bodies. If you’re optimizing for creating a healthy, happy and positive team environment, you’re spending way more time on connection, thoughtful team activities to connect, and pacing business deliverables for the team.

What do you choose today?

Bonus Tip: Practicing Self-Awareness: Practicing self-awareness is a valuable way to check-in with yourself on how you’re doing. For instance, are you clear on what your emotional needs are (your elephant)? When you get triggered at work, what part of you got triggered and where does that really come from? Everyone has biases. What are yours? What do you tend to automatically optimize for? Is that the best thing to optimize right now?



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