The Ultimatum

Put yourself in this senior pastor’s shoes. You’ve had some supervisory challenges with your Minister of Music over the past two years, but she’s a person that you value having on your team. Let’s call this employee Connie.  Connie is a brilliantly gifted musician and widely respected within the local musical community. She is liked and admired by the congregation. She is not a good team player. She repeatedly fails to show up for staff meetings and she doesn’t work well with you or others in the planning of worship. The choir members respect her, but she hasn’t been effective at creating a sense of community within the choirs.  You’ve had several conversations with her about her lack of team orientation, but she doesn’t seem to be improving.

Yesterday Connie asked to meet with you after staff meeting. She began the meeting by saying that the stress of the job is doing her in. Specifically, she can’t take “the continual hounding about being a team player”. She wants to be left alone to run the choirs the way that she sees fit; after all she is the musical expert on the staff team.  After talking about her frustrations Connie issues this ultimatum. “I will not participate in staff meetings any more. They are a waste of my time. I also want to be able to make all musical choices, including hymn selection, without the oversight or input of any other members on the team, including you. Finally, I want you to quit bugging me about approaching the development of the choir from a community perspective. We are musicians plain and simple, and the community building stuff is just getting in the way.  You have thirty days to think about this request. If you do not agree to these conditions of my employment, I am finished here.”   

What is your response?  Would your response change if I told you that Connie is an African American and 58 years old?  (You are Anglo-American; your congregation is 90% white and seeking to become more diverse). Does it make a difference that you’ve also had two other really difficult staff terminations in the past year?

Dealing with a staff ultimatum is easy if the staff member is a problem employee that you’ve been trying to figure out how to terminate. In fact, it’s a gift. You simple thank the employee for their service and show them the door.  But when the ultimatum is issued by someone like Connie, it’s more difficult. You don’t want the employee to leave, but she does have certain shortcomings that can’t be ignored. You don’t want the risk of a bad departure, particularly one that is skirting around the issues of ageism and racism.  

Situations like this one make me grateful to be a consultant. I admire those of you on the frontline, trying to deal with real life, while I sit on the sidelines and offer commentary.  For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the general approach to a situation like this one.

  1. Yielding to an ultimatum is almost always a bad idea. It’s a set up for subsequent manipulation and hostage holding. General rule of thumb: don’t ever accept the demands of an ultimatum as presented (unless you are blatantly wrong about the situation and the employee’s demands are entirely justified.)
  2. If the employment situation is one that you want to maintain, find a creative way to invite the employee away from the line they have drawn in the sand. You can do this with a few good techniques:
  • Invite the employee back into conversation and seek first to listen and truly understand; see if you can identify the root cause of the frustration that caused them to become positional in the first place.
  • Affirm their value in the congregation in a way that is genuine and honest.
  • Unpack the various elements of their ultimatum. Identify: what is this about, what is this not about, which parts of the situation can be changed, which parts of the situation cannot be changed?
  • Make distinctions between what the employee is able to do (skill), willing to do (motivation) and has the opportunity to do (environment).
  • Invite the employee to join with you in thinking creatively about alternatives other than resignation. What other solutions exist that don’t involve the ultimatum?
  • Emphasize the mutuality of what you are both seeking to preserve. What do you mutually value in the situation that ought to be preserved?

    3.   At the end of the day, if they will not back away from the ultimatum, prepare for letting them go and prepare for the damage control that you’re going to need to do in the congregation as they depart.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. Weigh in.

Photo Credit: war.tix

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