elephant in room“Drop a piece of paper on the floor and walk by it twice. The third time it will have become part of the furniture and you won’t notice it.”

— From Household Hints from Heloise, 1960s advice column


I’m not one who is known for her domestic skills. The only reason I have a kitchen is that it came with the house. The above piece of cleaning advice from decades ago, however, still rings in my head.

Before I go on, I want you to try it. Scrunch up a piece of paper and throw it on the floor. Walk by it 3 times. See?

I wonder whether the wisdom in that quote—essentially, that which gets ignored stays ignored—also applies to teams and organizations.

What topics in the workplace, for example, do we bring up once or twice, discuss a little and then move on to something else? It could be something that might or might not be more pressing. When we don’t revisit the topic and resolve it, that subject becomes a part of the fabric of the team—and of the organizational culture, whether we chose it or not.

For example, someone on the team states how irritating it is that no one ever cleans the refrigerator in the lunchroom. (Isn’t there ALWAYS someone irritated about the lunch room?) He/she may bring it up a second time or even a third.

However, when no action is taken, the refrigerator stays dirty. Everyone else hopes the complainer will just continue to clean it out, and at least one team member does a slow but steady burn.

One could argue that a dirty refrigerator has much more significance, like health issues from spoiled food, etc., than a dropped piece of paper. But the theoretical potential for having a greater impact in both situations is high. One hundred pieces of trash ignored may even be a fire hazard, but probably not as likely to cause an explosion as that irritated team member gets cleaning out the refrigerator over time.

Another common example where this metaphor plays out is in meetings. Some meetings always start late and never end on time. One person dominates while others stay silent. No agenda. No minutes. Unless you are that rare bird that never attends meetings, you could probably extend that list ad nauseam.

Most likely someone will try to address one of those issues… and try again. Maybe even a third time. If the team doesn’t notice or doesn’t address the concern, late, disorganized, time-wasting meetings become the norm.

So make sure that your organization addresses housekeeping issues before they become the norm, or result in the spontaneous combustion of a martyred employee. Don’t walk by your problems three times, ignoring them. Discuss and resolve to change them before they become a part of your culture.

Author’s note:

As I was writing this article, I wasn’t sure of the exact quote from Heloise so did a web search. It turns out that Heloise (the daughter) is alive and well and running a thriving “Heloise” business in Texas! She has all the usual accouterments—and a great website, Facebook page, and is on the lecture circuit. Her theme seems to be primarily organization—whether for your home, your office or your life.

I’ve never heard either mother or daughter speak and haven’t read many other hints. Since this one stuck with me for so long and is so true, it may be time to become as much a fan of the daughter as my mom was of the daughter’s mother.

Stay tuned!