Imagine a team meeting around a conference-room table. They are reviewing operations and making plans. Charts are reviewed, slides are projected, documents are handed out, and calculations are made.

Now imagine that standing in the middle of the conference-room table is a great big moose.

No one says a word about the moose. Everyone carries on polite and earnest conversation as if this situation is very normal. Meanwhile the moose is eating papers at one end of the table while plopping out moose pies at the other end of the table splattering a few participants’ business suits. Team members are passing papers around the moose’s legs. They shift in their chairs to make eye contact with each other under the moose’s belly or to see past it to the front of the room. Papers need to be pried out from underneath the moose’s huge hoofs. When the moose lifts its head, his massive antlers poke into the meeting room ceiling, raining down chunks of ceiling tile and knocking out a light. No one says a thing about this. The leader carries on blissfully with the meeting.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, this is not a real scenario (at least, not in my experience!), but a symbolic one. The moose represents an issue that everyone knows is a problem but isn’t being addressed. People are trying to carry on as if things are normal. Meanwhile the issue is blocking progress and has caused some team members to tune out of conversations. Like a dysfunctional family with an abuser in its midst, no one wants to confront the problem. By failing to declare the issue, they further empower it. The moose grows bigger.

The moose-on-the-table scenario is one that we run into very often with management teams. The problem is that conversations among the team aren’t authentic. They don’t deal with the real issues that are blocking progress. Some teams have a huge moose to deal with; others have a smaller moose.

Although well respected or famous people can be especially daunting for subordinates to question, it is important that they do, indeed, question. In an article entitled “Why Companies Fail,” Fortune magazine reported, “During World War II, Winston Churchill worried that his own larger-than-life personality would deter subordinates from bringing him bad news. So he set up a unit outside his generals’ chain of command, the Statistical Office, whose primary job was to feed him the starkest, most unvarnished facts. In a similar vein, Richard Schroth and Larry Elliott, authors of the book How Companies Lie, suggest designated ‘counterpointers,’ whose function is to ask the rudest questions possible. Such mechanisms take information and turn it into information that can’t be ignored… Even when a boss doesn’t intend to quash dissent, subtle signals – a sour expression, a curt response – can broadcast the message that bad news isn’t welcome.”

Some teams have a whole moose family crowding them out. Do you have a moose on your table? Here are a few symptoms:

  • The real conversations happen in the hallways or office after the meeting. There the moose or issues are clearly named. 
  • Team members complacently agree to a consensus at the meeting – then go off and do their own thing. They don’t voice their disagreements for fear that they’ll be labeled as not being team players. 
  • Commitments aren’t kept and deadlines are missed. It’s considered whining or copping out for a team member to give his or her real opinion about the feasibility of the target.
  • Once the team manager gives his or her opinion, everyone else stays quiet or falls in line behind the manager. Team members suck up to the boss and pretend the moose doesn’t exist.
  • Sudden surprises often come “out of the blue” – especially from within the organization. The team manager is frequently surprised to see a simmering problem suddenly erupt into a full-blown crisis.
  • The manager dominates meetings and most conversations. If he or she wants any of your ideas, he or she will give them to you.