British artist Banksy knows how to generate headlines. His street art and dark imagery have become recognised and imitated the world over, although his strong political and social commentary might slip right by the uninformed.

No matter. In 2006 he drew the ire of animal rights activists with a typically in-your-face contribution to an exhibition about global poverty in Los Angeles. Banky’s ‘Elephant in the Room’ was exactly that: a real elephant in the middle of a living room, painted the same bold colours as the plush wallpaper and ignored by the woman reading a book on the sofa.

The many-layered message behind Banky’s installation – the hypocrisy of ignoring what’s right in front of us – would resonate at multiple levels with those pushing for change. Yet the anger he evoked from some who might be expected to support his stand on global poverty illustrates the challenge involved in describing the elephant, an animal so big it might require several perspectives to accurately call it. Then there’s the issue of where it came from, who owns it and what to do with it. A complex beast indeed.

Eviatar Zerubavel was director of a university doctoral program when he became aware of a series of events that threatened the social and moral fabric of his department, yet were being steadfastly ignored by his colleagues. “Like the situation itself, I found their response to it personally distressing yet at the same time fascinating,” Zerubavel recalls. “Having written about the social impacts of the process of noticing, I became increasingly interested in the social aspects of the process of ignoring. I was also becoming increasingly aware of the problematic long-term impact of silence on individuals as well as entire groups.”

The result was The Elephant in the Room: Silence and denial in everyday life, Zerubavel’s exploration of the phenomenon of conspiracies of silence or, as columnist Paul Krugman describes them, “uncomfortable truths hidden in plain sight”. Such open secrets occur everywhere, from society’s highest levels through to the marital unit, and dealing with them is a complex exercise.

Ask anybody with a public profile. The proliferation of social media means leaders of all stripes are being scrutinised exhaustively, so choosing not to deal with an elephant – real or imagined – is no longer an option. Where there is already openness and genuine dialogue, such issues can be explored and managed. Unfortunately, all too few leaders tackle the unmentionables until it’s too late. “In an era where building rapport and clear and inspiring communication is so critical, it always surprises me how many CEOs still get it wrong,” says leadership consultant Peggy Klaus, citing one recent example of a CEO’s poor judgment. “In a half-hour speech to his new employees, without ever referencing the company’s massive layoffs two weeks prior, the CEO asked, with a straight face, ‘Does anyone have any questions?’”

It’s not only the corporate sector that comes in for criticism. Dan Pallotta has worked in the not-for-profit sector for much of his life and is regarded as a pioneer and an expert in social innovation. He’s also highly critical of some of the sector’s ‘uncomfortable truths’. “Some people say — though never publicly — that the elephant in the room of the non-profit sector is that people work in the sector because they can’t cut it in business,” Pallotta says. “Allow me to introduce a brand new elephant to the room: Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they’re more compassionate than others but because they’re codependent. Maybe the driving force is really inverted narcissism — an unhealthy and unexamined addiction to caretaking or to self-neglect.”

Pallotta’s comments unleashed a predictable storm of outrage about the elephant he’d described, with one respondent commenting, “Sorry your motives for helping other people are rooted in dysfunction”.

However, he also generated a lively debate about purpose, financial compensation and burnout in the sector. “The point … is not to come to a point, but to raise a question that has gone too long unasked,” Pallotta says. “And to ask it in the hope that by engaging it we might improve our own psychological health and, in so doing, our effectiveness in the world.”

Article by Josie Gibson