The Alligator in the Room
When I was around six years old, my family and I lived in a house on the St. John’s River in Florida. My bedroom in that house was at the top of the stairs. It was the only room on the second floor, with a door that led out to a rooftop terrace that would’ve been amazing if I was old enough for my parents to feel good about me going out there by myself. My bedroom also, or so I informed my mother and father, had an alligator living under my bed.
I can still remember the look my parents gave each other when I first trotted out this fact with all the self-assured gravitas a confident small child could muster. They pressed me for more details. Yes, I insisted, I knew what an alligator was. I was a Floridian; I saw them sunning themselves by the canals while I rode on the byways. I had even gotten as close as a chain-link fence would allow to one the last time we had been to the Okefenokee Swamp. Again, I asserted that I knew what an alligator looked like, and did solemnly swear that there was one living in my bedroom.
Common sense overruled my insistence. My parents could not fathom a reptilian house guest slipping in without them noticing. Their minds went to a thousand creepy details of my bedroom that might be contributing to my story. The old house had shaggy mustard green carpet that was worn in places and smelled damp. The window looking over the roof had an old tent that was peeling. At night, light from the moon distorted shadows and made the walls and floor come alive in angular shapes. Of course, there was also the forbidden door to the outside terrace. It almost begged a six-year-old’s mind to fix on unwanted visitors. I was a particularly imaginative and overly dramatic child, and my father concluded reasonably that there was no alligator living under my bed.
Yet my alligator stories did not end there. My anxiety grew; I started not wanting to be up in my bedroom by myself. My mom did what all the parenting books suggest: calm my fears without feeding into them too much. She seriously gave me a spray bottle of water to squirt on the alligator to make it disappear. That obviously didn’t work. Nights became difficult, often with me needing to be carried up to my room crying all the way.
This is just what my mom was doing one night when she first saw my alligator. She was carrying me up the stairs and I was clinging to her like a monkey on a tree branch. Suddenly, a long, dark shape darted out the door of my bedroom, brushed past her ankles on the way down the stairs, and ran towards the tiled Florida room.
It was actually an iguana. My six-year-old mind remembers it as enormous; maybe six feet long. Childhood memories can be soft on details, but it was definitely longer than I was tall at the time and therefore seemed huge to me. Our best guess is that it had slipped into the house when a downstairs remodel had left part of a wall open and covered in plastic sheeting. There it sat under my bed until the night it tired of its noisy roommate and made a break for freedom, spying the river through the windows as it ran down the stairs. My father came to my rescue and killed the “alligator” that had haunted me for weeks.
I don’t fault my parents for not believing me immediately. They did what any parent does on a regular basis, evaluating what they heard based on the given facts of the situation. Then they added in their own experiences and made the best conclusion: assuming that it was impossible that an alligator was living under my bed. They chose, however, not to look under my bed, a suggestion I made repeatedly with tears while repeating that an alligator lived in my bedroom. If they had, they would’ve found the iguana.
Remembering the “alligator” that lived in my bedroom challenges me to constantly examine my attitude towards my team members and the respect I pay them in the way I respond to their feedback, concerns, and suggestions. I don’t want those I work with to feel that they have a “pseudo voice”-- that their input is sought but not regarded.
I know exactly what this feels like because I’ve experienced it firsthand in the workplace. Years ago, I was on a stellar team and we were cranking out amazing work-- hitting deadlines and meeting all company-wide goals. After a while, small flaws became apparent in our procedures, and the cracks in productivity and team morale were already starting to show. Coworkers and I agreed we could not sustain our progress unless changes were made regarding finances, strategic planning, and policies. I personally conveyed my concerns to my direct supervisor and received lip service. I was told "okay, we will work on it; we will make changes" and the changes were never made. Sadly, the organization lost strong leadership and, after months of more ignored red flags, ultimately failed. Despite the financial investment made by those with the original vision, it ceased to do anything of real value or lasting impact.
As managers, our direct reports come to us with problems they face on a daily basis. We must remember that it takes an enormous amount of courage to speak truth to power, and at least pay them the courtesy of taking them seriously. Any leader worth following encourages and rewards employee initiative. I value my teammates' opinions, concerns, and feedback. I’m constantly asking myself: Do I listen well enough? Do I ask the right questions? Do I really take time to resolve issues that are reported to me, or do I immediately substitute my own interpretation of the facts? Do I actually make changes based on the feedback received?
Do I look under the bed for the alligator, or do I hand an employee a spray bottle of water labeled "Alligator Spray"? The answer to that question determines the success of my leadership and also my organization. Maybe the alligators are really iguanas, but they are no less real.