Circus elephant chained

The circus elephant syndrome

In Business and Environment, Business, Coaching and Success by Robin ElliottLeave a Comment

“So what you’re asking  him is to get bigger.”


I had been speaking to a business leader about his dilemma – which was that a long-standing member of his team had been promoted into a more senior position. The employee was struggling.

“Yes I guess that is what I’m asking. I want him to promote bigger, I want him to have the air of being more senior and having more responsibilities, but so far, after three months in the job, he just seems to be coasting along, being the same laid back, capable person he’s always been. He’s not being proactive, he’s not creating confidence with his new manager about his potential to succeed in the job.”

“You don’t just want him to promote bigger, you want him to be bigger, in every way.”

It is an odd thing about human nature how we become entrenched in comfort zones, in ways of being and behaving, and how in particular the structures and strictures of organisational life, while necessary, can become the very thing which restrict movement and create obstacles if not addressed.

There’s a well known phenomenon about how circus elephants are trained to be controlled by their much smaller and significantly less powerful handlers. When young they are bound to a stake in the ground by a heavy chain, they pull and tug at the chain to break free, but soon learn that this action elicits pain. One day they give up, having learned that they cannot pull free, and from that day forward they can be ‘chained’ with a slender rope. When this enormous animal feels any resistance –though it has the strength to pull the whole circus tent over – it stops trying, because it believes it cannot.

So it seemed to me this employee’s chain had been loosened, perhaps had it taken away all together, and yet he was unable to move into a bigger circle of influence, simply because of his history, his thinking and his ideas about his place in the organisation.

What to do?

First”, I asked, “have you given him permission to be bigger, I mean really spelled it out? You have the authority to make this decision, you have the authority to call these meetings, you have the authority to spend this amount of money.” Sometimes we just need it hammered home to us unequivocally: your chain has gone; you have room to move.

Secondly”, I suggested, “you need to tackle the internal beliefs that are keeping this man chained to his stake.” What is going on with his thinking that he feels unable to free himself from past behaviour. Having someone challenge him and work with him to expose the limiting beliefs and values he has about his own place in the world will help him to confront those parts of himself holding him back. We need to set people up for success by putting in those support systems, an external voice in the guise of a coach, who can inject new thinking into his circuitry and who can point out that the chain is no chain at all, but rather a thread, capable of breaking with no more than a deep breath and a change of mind.

“And finally”, I concluded, “have you asked this person if this is actually what he wants, right now?” Sometimes the solid corporate citizens, who are invariably the sustenance of the team and backbone of the organisation, are entirely happy just being that and staying where they are, in their known circle of power. This employee had just had another child – he was consumed also by those changes in his home life – perhaps it was just a timing issue, perhaps too much was being asked.

Power is an odd thing. Very often when we get it, when we have permission, we hold back, unsure how to use it, afraid of our own potential.

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. It is that we are powerful beyond measure”, as Marianne Williamson says, a line which reverberated around the world in 1994 when Nelson Mandela used it inspiringly in his inauguration speech.

Today, think about being bigger, readjust and recalibrate, know that you are not inadequate and enjoy your new-found power.

About the author
Robin Elliott

Robin Elliott

Robin Elliott is the founder and CEO of WisdomGlobal, a Sydney-based professional services firm specialising in people solutions for business. She also hosts the fortnightly internet radio show Wise Practice for Self, Work and Community on Contact Talk Radio.

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