Elephants, Squirrels, Porcupines, and Zombies Can Help Your Team Thrive
Want to mitigate the unintentional side effect of a “culture of niceness”? Here’s the scoop on a strategy that got a lot of buzz.
As part of an effort to make concrete progress on our commitment to having an inclusive company culture, we’ve embraced the concept of psychological safety and looked for ways to introduce new tactics, tools, or frameworks that we can put into practice.
One somewhat counterintuitive barrier to psychological safety is a culture of niceness. Niceness can get in the way of being real, which diminishes the chance for authentic learning or growth. Being too nice often means prioritizing in-the-moment comfort over truth or long-term progress. If a team isn’t able to handle challenges to the status quo or isn’t able to navigate disagreements about the best path forward, then they’re likely to stagnate. A stagnating team is often protecting the power and comfort of people who are already powerful and comfortable. It can also mean that good ideas don’t get shared, red flags are not raised, and preventable mistakes are made. This quiet, well-intentioned niceness can hold teams back from meaningful change and best possible results.
At Viget, we learned that we have to dismantle some niceness if we want to improve inclusion and prioritize excellence. This doesn’t mean replacing niceness with unkindness; it means breaking habits that favor short-term comfort. To attempt to do this in a way that’s productive, we embarked on a series of initiatives. One was to set up meetings and feedback forms more explicitly geared toward asking hard questions or addressing sticky subjects. We also made an effort to introduce tools that would normalize difficult, work-related topics and help us operate effectively during ensuing conversations. For example, Radical Candor - care personally, challenge directly - is a robust model. There’s a useful book, TED Talk, and related content. Check it out.
Another concept we learned about categorizes four types of conversation topics as “elephant, squirrel, dead fish, or vomit.” Popularized by Airbnb, this idea came up a ton in our research and was described as an “exercise” or “ tool.” Our DEI Consultants even suggested we adopt it. But we could never find much about how it should be used. The consultants didn’t know either. I think having the Airbnb name associated with it gave it credibility. The shock value of ‘dead fish’ and ‘vomit’ (together! In one sentence!) made it a fun thing to hype. But the hype obscured the actual utility.
A less grisly variation on the same concept is ESPZ, which the folks at Filament define as:
- Elephants: Big things people are thinking about, but not talking about.
- Squirrels: Topics that are distracting the team from what matters most.
- Porcupines: Touchy subjects that might feel too hard to handle.
- Zombies: Old issues, projects, or ways of working that never seem to go away.
The labels are thought-provoking, but we still weren’t sure how to implement them as a tool. We experimented, figuring that if there was value to these labels, we’d discover it through trial and error.
This is the article we were looking for during our research and never found. I want to reflect on what we learned from trying out this four-letter framework. I hope other folks will benefit from these takeaways.
In terms of rolling this out or making occasional use of it, my advice is to keep your expectations low. This isn’t a major initiative or even an “exercise.” It’s a nimble, flexible tool that anyone can use during any conversation.
I’d compare it to the concept of a meeting “parking lot.” During a meeting, if someone brings up a topic outside the scope of that meeting, you can validate the topic without derailing the meeting by putting it in the figurative parking lot (and following up on it later). Once you’ve been in a meeting where this strategy is used to effectively to manage a discussion, you can’t believe you ever survived without it.
It’s useful the same way it’s useful to name the “elephant in the room.” It’s a simple concept sitting in the background; not a big deal, but handy and versatile.
Like any other change you’re managing within a group, it’s smart to get a small handful of people using it first, before parading it company-wide. I suggest you start with a simple deck or one pager to explain the labels, including easy examples from your organization to bring the labels to life. Generic examples could be:
- Elephant: The company implemented a Return to Office mandate, but nobody is following it.
- Squirrel: A semantics debate interferes with decision-making about an important process change.
- Porcupine: A pattern of miscommunication between discipline leaders creates friction and derails progress.
- Zombie: Leaders begrudge an employee's departure, 6 months after the fact.
Encourage questions or discussion about ESPZ. Highlight how it supports an important goal, like inclusion. Once the framework is on your team’s shared radar and well understood, listen for an appropriate opportunity to use it in a meeting. From there, if it’s useful, people will probably follow your lead.
After you roll out ESPZ to a small team, ask yourself if it’s having the impact you’d hoped. If not, what can you tweak? Ask the team for their perspective, too. Then, roll it out to larger groups or share it company-wide.
The ESPZ framework can be an entry point when someone wants to open up about something difficult. For example, during the recruiting team’s offsite we had a conversation about diversity. “I have a porcupine on my mind,” one person said. The rest of us leaned in, knowing that the person was bravely raising a subject that might be tricky to unpack.
It can help us stay committed to the shared goal of making progress on hard topics. When a conversation veers away from the important stuff, towards more immediate or easier topics, we can catch ourselves chasing “squirrels.” Having an informal, shared label for these distractions helps us share the burden of staying focused on the more important issue.
The framework can nudge groups to get further, faster into a zone of real talk. Using ESPZ as a permission slip to bring up awkward topics, we can accelerate a brainstorming session and get to the meaty parts faster.
The ESPZ framework can work like protective goggles or gloves, a layer of safety to let us approach and stay with a topic that is typically taboo. Leveraging the framework signals to others that you know it’s a sensitive topic. Using the terms creates a little bit of distance so that raising the flag or responding to the flag is less likely to feel personal, attacking, or defensive.
Don’t host time-boxed “difficult conversation” breakout groups and then offer ESPZ as a way to make it vaguely less difficult. Our goal is to make it easier and more comfortable for people to discuss difficult topics in authentic ways, at important times, but trust and safety can’t be forced or manufactured. The kind of culture shift we’re looking for happens gradually.
This tool is not about making a list of all the elephants, squirrels, porcupines, and zombies that you can think of in your organization. An individual might choose to do that if they’re exploring their frustrations or trying to process why a certain dynamic isn’t working well. But as a group activity or shared tool, ESPZ isn’t meant to be a strategy for making a laundry list of grievances.
It’s wise to be clear on your purpose and know in advance what success might look like. In this case, success may be subtle. Ask people if they've found the concept of ESPZ useful, but also observe if communication norms are generally shifting towards being more open and productive. If there are positive anecdotes of shifting norms, highlight them to as broad an audience as possible. Help everyone see how meaningful change, like addressing a culture of niceness, is a shared responsibility that happens gradually and thoughtfully.
Difficult conversations are difficult! Psychological safety is not a given; everyone has to want it and work towards it. Shared language and ground rules can expedite progress. I encourage you to try ESPZ out and would love to hear from you about your experience.