Disappointed in Your Followers? Try Cultivating Awe!

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Every leader has experienced this frustration. You put your best leadership vision and energy foreword but you are met with an uninspired response. You hope for a reaction that is lively, expansive, generous and creative. Instead, your followers are unimaginative, scarcity-minded and inwardly-focused. What’s a leader to do?

Turning the tide might be easier than you think. Emerging research shows that simple experiences of awe unleash brain power, enhance generosity, and strengthen social connection.  Awe opens people up. Learn to cultivate awe as part of your leadership repertoire.

 What’s Awe Got to Do with It?

According to philosopher and psychologist William James, awe is the feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world.  The emotion that we call “awe” is our capacity for deep pleasure. When facing the incredible- we pause to take it all in.

Research is discovering important linkages between the experience of awe and our capacity for clearer thinking, kindness, generosity, creativity, ethical behavior and social connection. Research even suggests that awe combats narcissistic behavior in individuals and groups. When people have regular experiences of awe they are increasingly oriented to the world around them and less invested in individual goals and agendas.

How Awe Works

Awe is triggered by a variety of experiences that include prayer and worship, an exposure to natural wonders, great works of art, music, architecture, brilliant colors, remarkable human accomplishments, or mind-expanding theories.

Experiences of awe make us feel small. Our self-perception shrinks, but not in the negative sense of low self-esteem or lower social status. We simply get clear about our own relative insignificance in the grander scheme of the universe. Awe elicits the “small-self,” shifting attention away from our individual needs and goals and toward the larger experience of the collective group. We see the universe as expansive and ourselves as less important.

Michele Lani Shiota, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University,  explains that emotions have adaptive functions-they help us thrive in a changing, unstable environment. Fear, for instance, promotes avoidance and escape from danger. Love facilitates the intimate interdependent relationships on which humans thrive. Awe serves a distinct purpose.  It elicits our capacity for deep pleasure in the face of the incredible, and it calms us so that we can fully absorb our environment.

 

What Awe Produces

Most positive emotions elicit the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). They produce the energy and adrenaline needed for survival and needed for goal achievement.

Awe has the opposite effect. Awe engages the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (the rest-digest response) and invites us to be still.  It creates the perception that time is expanding. This calmer state of the nervous system impacts the brain. Awe creates a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve. It opens us to more careful, detail-oriented processing of information from the environment. In simpler terms, awe sharpens our thinking and helps us to notice, adapt and learn.

Awe also encourages altruistic behavior.  When we encounter a sense of something larger than ourselves, it expands our beliefs about the richness of human potential. Awe promotes social cohesion.

Research shows that people who regularly experience awe are kinder to others and more generous with their time. They behave in more ethical ways. They have a reduced sense of entitlement and deprioritize their own goals in service to a group goal.

 

Eliciting Awe

Fortunately, religious institutions excel at attuning people to awe. Our worship services, prayer disciplines, sacraments and healing rituals are meant to be awe-inspiring.

Unfortunately, many of use leave the experience of awe at the door when it comes to managing the business of the church. We ignore the potential benefits of awe in the board room, the staff meeting and in our committee work.

We can significantly enhance the qualities of leadership and followership in our congregations by inviting regular experiences of awe. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Invite people to remember a recent time when they experienced awe. Invite them to write or talk about that time. Research shows that the simple act of remembering an awe-filled experience elicits many of the positive effects of awe.
  • Show your people visual stimulation that is awe-inspiring, like this awe video . Let them sit in silence and gratitude for a few minutes after viewing the video before picking up business as usual.
  • Take your leaders on an “Awe Walk” before making a big decision. Move them into nature, if nature is available. Take them to explore a part of the city they’ve never experienced before. Otherwise, simply ask them to gaze on something familiar, from a unique angle and with fresh eyes.

While walking, shift awareness so that you all are open to what is around you, to things that are vast or unexpected. Things that delight and surprise.

As you walk, breathe deeply, counting to six as you inhale and six as you exhale.  When you return to your meeting venue, bring this state of awe and wonder with you.

We live in highly anxious times. It’s difficult for people to think and behave expansively when they are anxious. Inviting more frequent experiences of awe, and helping people attune to awe, can transform both you and your followers.

 

Photo Credit: “Morning Awe”, © 2009 Dru BloomfieldFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Five Things to Consider Before Inviting Visitors into the Boardroom

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Inclusion, transparency and trust are important values for many congregations. To promote these values, congregations often adopt open board meetings. Members who do not serve on the governing board are welcome to attend the board’s meetings. They may or may not be allowed to weigh in with their opinions. Are open board meetings a good idea? Under what circumstances?

A variety of options exist for opening the board meeting to visitor participation. It is important to note that in each of the following scenarios only elected board members are permitted to vote.

Some congregations open the entire board meeting to visitors but ask the observers to watch and listen in silence. Occasional closed door sessions are held, where all visitors are asked to leave the room so that more confidential agenda items can be discussed.

Other congregations open a portion of the meeting to hear from any non-board member on any topic. Then the meeting is closed and visitors are asked to leave the room.

Still others invite only those outsiders with insights pertinent to a planned agenda item. These visitors typically arrive at the beginning of the meeting and stay through their scheduled discussion topic. Once the pertinent agenda item is finished the visitor is expected to leave.

What is the impact of having outsiders in the boardroom? There are at least five factors to consider before deciding to open or close your board meetings.

 

The Size of the Group Matters

The ideal sized decision making unit is between five and seven individuals. In a group of five to seven people, every participant can track the opinions of every other person. Every voice can be heard. The group is large enough to foster diversity but small enough to prevent silent factions.

Most governing boards are already larger than seven members before visitors are invited. We must bear in mind that each additional person in the room exponentially increases the challenges of open communication and decision making.  This is true even when the visitors are not allowed to vote or comment. Interpreting body language and imagining the viewpoints of silent participants is all part of the communication challenge.

 

The Quality of the Work Matters

The primary work of many governing boards involves sharing reports about what has already occurred and seeking authorization for upcoming activity. If this is the primary work of your board- you won’t be inhibited by the presence of non-board members. There isn’t much that outsiders can do to enhance or inhibit rubber stamp board work.

However, if you would like your board to be more strategic and generative, reconsider the presence of visitors.  Strategic work involves examining congregational identity, clarifying core values, naming targeted outcomes, and aligning resources. Generative work involves noticing changes in the environment, challenging paradigms, and re-framing ministry.

Strategic and generative work requires bold and imaginative thinking. Board meetings should serve as safe spaces where leaders can brainstorm outlandish ideas before narrowing in on a specific course of action. Board leaders shouldn’t have to worry about what a visitor might take away about an idea that is only half formed.

 

The Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence of the Visitor Matters

The work that takes place in the board room ought to represent the best and brightest thinking of the congregation. Hopefully, we assemble boards made up of emotionally and spiritually mature leaders. We should only invite outsiders into the board room who have the capacity to enhance our conversation.

Sometimes, the people who show up in response to open invitations are not our best and brightest. They may have an individual axe to grind. They may be attracted to the board room as a vehicle to exercise power and control. They may simply be seeking something to do, or a way to connect.

When you decide to incorporate non-board members, consider the emotional and spiritual maturity of people that will be in the room. Their presence includes them in the dynamic, regardless of whether they speak during the meeting. A silent meeting participant won’t necessarily remain silent once they leave the room. They may take their end of the conversation into the parking lot or onto social media.

 

Every Voice Matters, But Not in the Board Room

Every member of your congregation is a child or God and of equal inherent worth. Every member of the congregation has equal voice on issues that come before the congregation for a vote. However, not every voice belongs in the board room.

We are all gifted in different ways and called to serve differently in church life. Those who are gifted in the work of governance, policy and strategy are called to serve as board members. We should authorize them to make decisions on our behalf and then hold them accountable in accordance with our by-laws. We shouldn’t micromanage their monthly meetings.

Members who have not been authorized to serve as board leaders should not have unlimited access to board conversations. They should apply their skills and abilities to areas where they are most gifted.

 

There are Better Ways to Promote Trust

There are better ways to engender trust, transparency and inclusion than randomly inviting members to witness or influence the work of the board.

The research of leadership professors, Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith (1997), identified four organizational traits associated with trust: vision, empathy, consistency and integrity.

Our governing boards will be trustworthy when their work produces clarity of vision, when the actions of the board demonstrate empathy for the membership base, when the board makes decisions that are consistent with the core values of the congregation, and when board decision-making brings about moral order. If the random inclusion of non-board members detracts from these conditions, then inclusion works against trust.

Want to enhance the culture of trust, inclusion and transparency in your congregation? Be more intentional, and perhaps more restrictive, about who gets invited into the boardroom.

 

(Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds, May 2017, Norfolk, England. Flickr)

Making Space for Middle Ground

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

We are a nation divided and those divisions are creeping into congregational life. It grows increasingly difficult to hold an ideological middle ground in politics, theology, or leadership. Pastors climb into pulpits fearful that a simple sermon topic will be interpreted as a political statement. Decision-making is heavy-laden with ideological spin, making it difficult to set a direction.

Polarization is the division that occurs when a complex community falsely divides itself into sharply contrasting groups. Opposing sets of opinions or beliefs are used to foster a we/they mentality that forces people to declare their “side.” We don’t have to accept polarity as the new status quo. There are specific things we can all do to encourage the re-emergence of a healthy middle ground.

Signs of Polarity

A healthy congregational hosts a broad spectrum of thought. Outliers with extreme viewpoints are regarded as quirky and perhaps even endearing. The presence of a strong middle ground means that no one is too far removed from another with a similar ideology. There is someone near me in perspective who connects me to others beyond my reach, thus bridging ideological gaps. The ideology of the next closest person is a comfort to me, and they stand between me and those I find too extreme.

When polarization happens, we lose the middle. Some of the people who represented a safe buffer between extremes move into the extremes. Others who stood at our ideological center grow alarmed by the polarization and step out or silence themselves. They become bystanders to the dialogue instead of participants in it and we lose our mediation zone. We/they thinking begins to emerge. We lose our ability to separate people and problems and “otherness” becomes the problem. We focus on personalities rather than issues. Reality gets distorted and exaggerated. We begin defending ideologies instead of seeing one another and working together to resolve our differences.

Ten Things You Can Do

Restoring an ideological middle ground is key to addressing polarization. Here are some simple (and not so simple) steps that leaders can take to foster the return of a healthy middle ground.

1. Stay spiritually grounded. It is critical to remain non-anxious and connected to your spiritual source. Fear, driven by the reactivity of the congregation, cannot be your guiding force. You must have a bedrock Source that guides your behavioral choices and your personal decision making.

2. Maintain a sense of humor.  Healthy leaders and organization can laugh at themselves. Humor disappears as an organization polarizes. Use humor appropriately and invite others not to take themselves too seriously.

3. Regulate your own responses. Be clear about your own feelings. Don’t let your personal emotions cloud your perceptions and opinions. Use “I” statements to clarify your feelings and to let others know how their behaviors impact you.

  “When you approach me at the end of the worship service with a critique of my sermon, I feel ambushed and disrespected. In that moment, I am trying to make connections with every member of the congregation. I can’t properly respond to your ideas in that setting, and your ideas aren’t yet fully formed. I would prefer to hear your ideas later in the week, after you have had a chance to think through your concerns and I have space to receive them.”

4. Focus your energy on health, not dysfunction. We are often tempted to focus our time and energy on people behaving badly, trying to cajole or force them into better behavior. People who are unwilling or unable to make good behavioral choices rarely respond well to pleas or coercive efforts.

Your time is better spent with the disengaged healthy bystanders, the people who say and do nothing because they don’t know what to do in the face of heated debate or bad behavior. Help the healthy people figure out an effective way to engage. Invite the healthy players to stay engaged with you on middle ground and ignore the dysfunction as much as possible.

5. Help people clarify needs, not positions. As polarization intensifies, people make statements that are positional and extreme. “If you preach one more sermon on that topic, I am out of here.”

When people take a positional stance, help deescalate their position by focusing on the underlying needs. “What is important to you in a sermon? What draws you to worship each week? What is important to you about your relationship with me as your pastor? How is the sermon topic that I choose related to those needs?”

6. Challenge behaviors and ideas, not motives or worth. It is easy to make assumptions about the motives behind positions, and to project clusters of other beliefs based on what we have heard. “If you believe this, then you must also stand for that.”  

In healthy organizations, people attribute good intent to one another. They don’t categorize and label one another. They ask for clarification of ideas and intent, and they give one another the benefit of the doubt until clarification is provided.

7. Paraphrase the idea of others before responding. When you hear an idea or accusation that alarms you, pause before responding. Commit to paraphrasing first what you heard from the other before weighing in with your own opinion or response. Ask the other if you have properly heard their idea before suggesting an alternative idea. Ask others to engage in this same practice.

8. Stay in your own skin. Do not speak on behalf of others. In a polarized community, people like to speak on behalf of the group they perceive as theirs.  “Others are saying…”  When people speak on behalf of another, simply remind them to speak their own truth.

9. Start with what is possible.  A return to healthy dialogue sometimes seems impossible. We can’t imagine a pathway forward that takes us from where we are to restored community. You don’t have to visualize the entire path towards restored health. Get people to commit to one small step together. Success with that one small step will begin to restore trust and will shine light on the next helpful step.

10. Pray for one another. It is impossible for a community that is praying for one another to stand in long term opposition to one another. A genuine stance of prayer invites empathy, compassion and reconciliation.

Our national discourse is not likely to calm down anytime soon. People will look to the church to provide respite from this turmoil.  People need the church to model a better way of living with diversity. Your leadership presence has never been more relevant. Ask others to commit to these ten behaviors with you so that church remains a haven, a place where differences are explored and celebrated.

 

Taming the Bureaucracy Beast

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The church needs innovation, experimentation and risk taking.  The church has bureaucracy; inactivity in the name of good order and process. Senseless bureaucracy keeps us endlessly mired in reporting, approval seeking and communication. We end up with repetitive meetings, multiple levels of approval, over-reliance on procedure, and postponed decision making until everyone is informed and happy.  What would it take to free ourselves from all of this and just get things done?


Too Much of a Good Thing

In the late 1980’s Zebra Mussels found their way into the Great Lakes. A few Zebra Mussels are healthy for a fresh water ecosystem. They filter the water and reduce the overgrowth of algae. They produce clear water and facilitate healthier conditions for bottom dwellers.

image controlsUnfortunately, Zebra Mussels also feed voraciously and reproduce rapidly. Instead of gently cleaning up the Great Lakes waterways, the mussels over-proliferated and destroyed too much algae, threatening wild fish habitats.  They also clogged fresh water intake valves and filtration processes that human communities around the Great Lakes depend upon to thrive.

Congregational systems are like the Great Lakes ecosystem in this analogy. A few good procedures and carefully constructed decision making rules will produce transparency and generate healthy representation. Good policy keeps us from running off the deep end in pursuit of ideas that are not a good fit for us.  However, when process and procedure over-proliferate, we end up with clogged decision making. Innovation and risk taking take a back seat to sustaining good order.

The good news is that there are things we can do right now to tame the bureaucracy beast and restore a healthier balance between order and innovation.

Know what you seek to accomplish:

Bureaucracy thrives when process takes precedent over outcomes. When communication, shared decision making, and keeping people happy become the outcome, we end up with stagnation and clogged intake valves.

We begin unclogging by naming the specific changed conditions we are trying to produce in mission and ministry. This requires naming the new learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning that fulfilling your mission requires. These are your outcomes.

Outcomes are the not the same thing as outputs. Outputs are the direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs indicate if a service was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of constituents served, classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged.  

When we are unclear about outcomes, we often chase outputs. Chasing outputs without clarity about outcomes promotes unhelpful busyness and feeds the bureaucracy beast.

 

Eliminate Liaisons

Congregational governance systems ensure representation, and the primary way we have pursued representation is through liaison roles.  We select leaders on the basis of their ability to represent the voice of a specific constituency: the choir, the youth, the women, or the daycare. The liaison is expected to attend all board meetings, as well as any committee or team meetings that impact her constituency group. Her job, in addition to representing the best interest of her constituency group, is to ensure that important information from the board meeting is carried over to the committee meeting, and vice versa.

There are several things wrong with liaison roles. First, liaison roles elevate communication and decision making over action. A liaison may be expected to attend three to four meetings per month so that her constituency group is appropriately informed and represented everywhere that a decision might be made. Volunteers use up all of their available time attending meetings, without actually engaging in any hands on ministry. It’s exhausting for the volunteer and the governance system. In this age of digital communication there are far better ways of sharing important information than requiring a person to sit in endless meetings, in case their viewpoint is required.

The second problem with liaison roles is that they don’t promote strategic thinking on behalf of the whole. They certainly encourage debate: my group needs this, your group wants that. A room full of designated liaisons acting in the best interest of their constituent groups won’t necessarily reach a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. They are likely to make decisions that serve the needs of the constituency with the most outspoken liaison.

What if, instead of appointing liaisons, we assemble smaller bodies of decision makers who act on behalf of the whole? We expect them to make informed decisions and communicate as needed with the appropriate constituencies of the church. This requires more intentionality when forming agendas, to make certain that the right people (the staff member or committee chairperson) are in the room when a decision is being considered. This would free us up to make decisions more flexibly, without deferring decisions back to committees or task forces for further consideration before a decision is authorized.

 

Design an Experiment

Some bureaucracy stems from the fact that we don’t want anyone to be surprised or upset about a decision that is under consideration. We postpone decision making until every voice is heard and until everyone is happily on board. This squelches innovation. Nothing happens until we all agree.

Next time you find yourself in a meeting where the group wants to postpone a decision, why not encourage the birth of an experiment? If the group isn’t comfortable approving a new giant step, figure out how to make it a baby step that everyone can learn from.

Bureaucratic systems are built to support “Ready, Aim, Fire!” mentality. Bureaucracy seeks absolute clarity and consensus before allowing action, so that errors are not made.

In this era of continuous change, we don’t have the luxury of moving ponderously. We need to act more quickly, embracing more of a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach to decision making.  We ready ourselves to take a step that is reasonable. We pull the trigger and move ahead with an experiment that will allow us to learn something. The experiment has to be appropriate in scope so that failure won’t be devastating. We learn from the experiment and refine our next steps, postponing acts of authorization until we have learned what we need to know.

Bureaucracy in a congregation is not inevitable. We don’t have to succumb to overgrown systems of communication, decision making and approval. We don’t have to wait for a major overhaul of our governance system from the denomination. We can begin right here, right now to streamline our approach and allow more innovation.

Working Around Incompetence on the Team

Monday, May 11th, 2015

We aspire to build staff teams of competent, motivated individuals who work in dogged pursuit of a clearly articulated vision. What most of us have are teams with some outstanding staff and some not so outstanding staff, working side by side towards a vision that seems clear, on some days.

Most of you are grappling with some incompetence on the team you inherited, or incompetence you managed to hire yourself.  You spend your time accordingly.  Sometimes, it is abundantly clear that a member of the team just isn’t able or willing to adequately fill the needs of the role, but the political dynamics of the situation don’t allow for making a transition now.  How do you manage in this environment?

Maintain Clarity of Expectations: Effective performance management of the team requires clarity in three areas, for each staff role: the essential functions (duties & tasks of the job), the core competencies (behavioral attributes, skills & abilities required), and the performance goals (area of focus for the current year).

Oftentimes, as a supervisor comes to terms with the incompetence of a team member, the supervisor abandons performance expectations, settling for whatever the employee delivers.  The supervisor grows weary of communicating failed expectations over and over. So, he scales back the expectations. Each time that expectations are lowered, the underperforming staff member reduces effort and performance degenerates even further.

Working with incompetence on the staff requires vigilance around role expectations. If we cut the underperformer slack, we teach the larger staff system that excellence is not important. We set up an unhealthy dynamic where high-functioning staff burn out as they over-compensate for the underperformer. We lose sight of effective staffing structures because we keep re-assigning responsibilities to newer hires that are brought in to pick up the slack.

Maintaining clarity of expectations requires a commitment to ongoing communication about what the role requires, and communication about the gap we observe between actual performance and the ideal. Maintaining clarity of expectations means that the under-performing team member bears the discomfort of their own under-performance. We don’t create a comfortable environment for them to settle into by displacing responsibility elsewhere.

Be Honest with Yourself: It is easy to tell yourself that it isn’t in the best interest of the congregation to move the incompetent member off of the team right now.  You imagine the level of conflict that such a move might produce. You exaggerate the level of social support that the person has in your congregation.  You empathize with the drama the employee is experiencing in his personal life. You nurture all of your worst fears about how badly this could unfold. You tell yourself that people of faith are invested in redemption and that you are giving this person one more chance.

If you are honest about the situation, you may have to acknowledge your own conflict avoidance.  You may have to admit that you haven’t moved on the situation because you simply haven’t engaged the hard work of expectation setting, and you haven’t invested the necessary time in performance feedback. You may have to admit that this season isn’t any better or worse than a future time for addressing the problem; in fact, to allow the situation to continue will only make things worse over the long term.

Have a Long-Term Plan: Now may not be the right time to move the under-performer off of the team. What conditions would be evident if it was the right time?  How can you create those conditions?

Recently I spoke with a pastor who vowed to me that she would not pass her incompetent employee onto the next senior pastor. So I asked the pastor, “If you are ultimately going to deal with this, why not now, so that you can enjoy the benefit of the improved environment, along with the next senior pastor?”  She didn’t have a response.

If we decide to live with continued incompetence, we should have a clear picture of the conditions we are trying to produce that will ultimately birth a healthier team. For example, a pastor decides that she needs eighteen months to bring a new staff member fully onboard, so that the new leader can step into the gap as we let the problem staff member go.  Or, a pastor targets a six-month period of time to help lay leadership become more aware of the performance gap, and to build a cadre of lay leadership supporters before moving the incompetent team member out. The pastor should have a specific action plan in mind to justify inaction now.

Having a long-term plan also means creating a five year staffing plan, so that each time you make a staffing change you work towards a long-term solution that resembles your dream team.  Don’t structure around incompetence.  In other words, don’t create new positions to shore up an under-performer. When you eventually move an under-performer off of your team, you don’t want to be saddled with a patchwork of positions that no longer make sense.  Design roles and hire new people only because they move you towards your long term vision of team health.

You may not have the staff team of your dreams, but there are concrete steps that you can take to eventually live into that dream.  It requires persistence and hard work. You can move in the right direction by maintaining clear expectations, being honest with yourself, and having a long term plan.

Breaking Our Dependence on Praise

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

“You like me.  You really like me!”  Let’s face it. We are all guilty of defining our self-worth by what others think. When people praise us we feel successful.  Are we?

Courageous and adaptive leadership requires leaning into our own incompetence, and pointing out the incompetence of our congregations.  Leading beyond our own competence will invite mistakes and failures. Mistakes and failures call forth criticism.

Anything really worth doing as a leader is going to involve criticism.  How do we wean ourselves from a dependency on praise and teach ourselves and others to work well with criticism?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

1. Recognize that feedback is data. Feedback, in the form of praise or criticism, is primarily about the person offering it. Typically, praise or criticism leveled at a leader has little to do with the leader’s personal performance.  If you treat the feedback as data you can remain more objective about it, and use it to better understand the organization you are leading.

An individual offering praise may be using it as an ingratiation tactic, to get into your good graces, to create rapport, or to advance an agenda.  They may be trying to enhance their own self-image by displaying their magnanimous nature.  They may use praise to break the ice, to introduce a topic that is hard for them to talk about. They may be telling you that what you have done aligns with who they are.

Similarly, criticism is often data about the personal preferences, emotional maturity or values of the person(s) offering the critique.  Criticism may indicate change resistance, a tension in values, or priorities out of alignment.

2.  Become more aware of your own triggers. Each of us has emotional triggers that reflect our personal insecurities.  Our most dysfunctional congregants have a knack for honing in on our triggers, criticizing us in just the right way to provoke reactivity.

If I know which stimuli are likely to set me off, I can create intentional strategies to override my automatic “flight or flight” response, so that I can respond with greater intentionality.

3. Learn to evaluate the quality of the feedback you receive. You are in control of whether you will receive the feedback that has been offered, whether you will seek further information to strengthen the feedback, or whether you will simply choose to ignore it.

You can evaluate whether or not the feedback you receive is valid by considering its accuracy, its substance, and its importance.

  • Accuracy:  Who is offering this feedback?   Are they in a position to accurately observe and evaluate your efforts?  What are their intentions and vested interests? Do they have the emotional capacity and willingness to offer feedback constructively? Are they having a bad day?
  • Substance: What values and priorities does this individual hold with regard to the feedback topic?  Are their values and priorities in alignment with yours? With the organization? Are they vested in your best interest and the best interest of the congregation?
  • Importance: How critical is this feedback to the success of your initiative?  How central is their viewpoint to your efforts? How connected are they to others and what is the likelihood that others will give credence to what they are saying?

4.  Ask for better feedback. Undifferentiated praise is no more helpful than undifferentiated criticism.  If you want to move away from a dependency on praise you must invite more concrete feedback.  Begin by explaining to others how, when and where you prefer to receive feedback. (A critique of the sermon in the back of the church during the meet and greet…not so helpful.) Ask clarifying questions. What was the specific context, the behavior, the impact?  Invite feedback from others to verify the data that you are receiving.  In the face of criticism, ask the critic to suggest alternative behaviors that would be more effective in the future.

5.  Nurture a contemplative mind-set. Ultimately, to break our dependence on external praise we need to strengthen our authentic, soulful self.  As we become clearer about who we are in relationship to our source, we lessen the need for external validation.  Contemplation is an all-embracing quality of presence that is grounded in prayer and union with the divine. Contemplation through prayer and meditation invites us to release our attachments to outcomes in general, and to the need for praise. We remain steadier, more objective and less reactive when we are centered in God.

Attaching our self-worth to the praise of others is a dangerous leadership practice.  It prevents us from taking necessary risks.  We must focus less on whether we are praised or criticized, and focus more on improving the quality of feedback we offer and receive.

You Disappointed Me

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

A volunteer agrees to complete a task but fails to deliver, or delivers a less than satisfactory outcome. A leader violates an established behavioral standard. What do you do? How do you redeem the situation?

Disappointment is inevitable when people are involved in ministry; but disappointment doesn’t have to be the final word. Delivering an effective feedback message in the face of disappointment can turn the situation around and introduce accountability into the volunteer relationship.

Many of us have learned to blindly accept less than desired or agreed upon outcomes. Often we choose to simply redo or complete a task ourselves, or work around a problem player. After all, congregations are volunteer organizations. What can you expect? We take what we can get.

Each time that we fail to addresimagess a disappointing outcome with one volunteer, we send a harmful message to all of our volunteers. We communicate that the ministry itself isn’t important enough to warrant excellence and accountability. We communicate that the overarching mission of the congregation is not as important as the volunteer’s feelings.

I suspect that we fail to confront because we fear that the conversation might get away from us. We aren’t sure how to start the conversation, or how to respond if the volunteer gets upset, denies that there is a problem, or blames others for the outcome. It is easier to say nothing, and if necessary, to do the task ourselves.

Describe the Situation-Behavior-Impact

The Center for Creative Leadership Feedback_That_Works_How_to_Build_and_Deliver_Your_Message offers a simple model for giving specific feedback that is time tested and works.

Situation: Describe the Situation. Be specific about when and where the behavior occurred, or was supposed to occur.

Yesterday morning, I passed you in the hallway and you were having a conversation with John Q about the new building plan

Behavior: Describe the observable behavior. Don’t use generalities and don’t assume you know what the other person was thinking.

John said that he thought the plan was poorly conceived and downright stupid. You responded that you didn’t like the plan either and had never supported it.

Impact: Describe what you thought or felt in reaction to the behavior.

I was surprised to hear you lack of support for the plan, because you had never indicated those reservations during Council discussions on the topic. I was also hurt that you were not supporting a decision that we as a Council had all agreed upon together. I felt like you were being disloyal to me and other Council members.

Ask About Intention

Once you have clearly delivered your feedback, pause and ask the volunteer to offer an explanation about why they behaved as they did. “Why did you choose to have that particular conversation?” or “What were you hoping to accomplish?” or “What was your intent?”

Inquiring about intent prevents misperceptions and clears up incorrect inferences or assumptions on our part. It also transfers the responsibility for the conversation over to the volunteer. It is their turn to explain their thinking, assumptions, action or inaction. For example:

I feel really badly about that conversation. I never meant to betray the decision of the Council. John was berating me for supporting a plan that he did not like. The whole conversation got away from me and I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just told him that I didn’t agree with the decision, so that I could end the conversation.

-or-

I don’t feel like I can comfortably speak up and express my viewpoints in Council meetings. When I express an opinion that is contrary to the popular opinion in the room, I feel pressured to conform. I don’t know why I should defend the Council, when I feel like my voice isn’t really represented in the decision making.

Once the intent is clearer, you can coach the volunteer about how to make better choices and resolve their performance issues in the future.

Avoid Sidetracks

It is commonplace for the person being held accountable to avoid responsibility by redirecting the conversation. The volunteer may disagree with your assessment of their performance or the situation. They may blame you or others for their lack of performance. They may minimize the impact of their behavior. All of these responses are known as “sidetracks”. A sidetrack is meant to take the pressure off of the individual being confronted, and to focus the accountability elsewhere.

The most difficult sidetracks are those which are meant to implicate us in the failure. “You shouldn’t have been listening in on my conversation with John.” “I know that you aren’t crazy about the plan either, why are you supporting this initiative?” “You know that the only reason we settled on this building plan is because our Council President has a relationship with the architect that proposed it.”

It is easy to get hooked by the sidetrack. We get embroiled in a logic debate, and several minutes later find ourselves engaged in a conversation that has nothing to do with the behavior we were trying to address.

The simplest way to handle a sidetrack is to acknowledge the central truth in the statement, and then draw the conversation back to the performance issue at hand. The most effective way to do this is with the phrase, “But, right now…”

I am aware that eavesdropping on conversations is not an ethical practice. I wasn’t intentionally trying to listen in. But, right now I’d like to address your decision not to support the decision that we made together as a Council.

-or-

Whether or not I feel comfortable with the building plan is not the issue here. Right now, I’d like to talk about why you didn’t raise your concerns in our Council meeting, and why you chose to indicate your lack of support to someone who is not on the Council.

Restate the Standard

The final part of the accountability conversation should include a restatement of the standard.

I’d like to remind you that we have an agreed upon standard as Council members. We speak our personal truth to one another when we are in the midst of decision making. Once a decision has been made, we support that decision when speaking to non-Council members.

The work of volunteers is critical to the well-being of our congregations. Holding volunteers accountable for agreed upon performance standards is not as menacing as we often fear it will be. You can create a culture of accountability by modeling these conversations and training others to follow these simple conversational guidelines.

Pastoral Transition-Lifting the Veil of Secrecy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Organizations in all walks of life openly plan for leadership transition. The Church is unique in the veil of secrecy that we draw around pastoral transition. We don’t want to watch people grow anxious, so we withhold known information about departure. secretjpg_jpg_size_xxlarge_letterboxIn doing so, we postpone the hard adaptive work of leadership transition into the next chapter. New pastors walk into congregations that haven’t yet had a good ending, and clearly aren’t ready for a new beginning.

Pastors plan their retirements for years, but wait to tell their congregations about their plans until a few short weeks or months before the intended transition date. Or, a pastor discerns that his or her call to this congregation is drawing to a close. She begins feeling a pull towards a different kind of ministry. Rather than discussing this discernment with leaders in the congregation, she holds her decision tightly to her chest until another call is firmly in hand. Then she springs an announcement on church leaders, four short weeks prior to her departure.

Recently, a congregation contacted me to help them with some low level anxiety in the system (i.e., conflict) that was getting in the way of strategic planning. We decided to host listening sessions with leaders, to better understand what was happening.

The consultation began with the senior pastor pulling me aside for a “confidential” conversation. He wanted to talk about his planned retirement. The pastor was in his early seventies and had not yet spoken with a single staff member or lay leader about the end of his ministry. He had been their leader for twenty-three years. The church had experienced remarkable renewal and growth under his leadership. This pastor was certain that any conversation along the lines of retirement would create mayhem in the congregation. In fact, numerous leaders had told him over the years that he couldn’t possibly retire because he was so loved, and no one could replace him. The pastor didn’t believe that line, but he could sense the anxiety in his leaders, whenever he tried to broach the subject.

When I finished my conversation with the pastor I facilitated listening sessions with the board and the staff team. In both listening sessions the primary issue raised was the future leadership of the church. They loved their pastor, but they sensed a waning energy and enthusiasm in his leadership. The believed it was time for the pastor to begin planning for retirement, but they didn’t want to disrespect his leadership by saying so, directly to him.

Leaders were fearful that the lack of a transition plan would result in one of three outcomes. The pastor would experience a significant medical event that would abruptly take him out of leadership and leave the church in chaos. The pastor would stay too long at the fair, and the vitality of the church would wane, inviting malaise and decline that would be hard to reverse once a new leader actually came on board. Or, the pastor would exit from the system poorly, failing to release the leadership reigns gracefully to a new leader.

Why couldn’t the leaders of this congregation have an open and honest dialogue about pastoral transition? They were afraid. They had legitimate reason to be fearful about all of the possible things that could go wrong in such a conversation.

There is fear that too much time in role after the announcement will lead to “lame duck” leadership; pastors feeling sidelined and irrelevant in their own congregations. There is fear that the anxiety in the congregation will prevent good work in the present. Better to wait and let the congregation do their grieving and adaptive work during the official interim season. There is fear that the rest of the staff team will get nervous and bolt if too much time passes between the announced intention to depart and the actual departure. Finally, there is fear that announcing an intended departure will place control in the hands of everyone else, but the pastor.

The problem is, and always has been, that systems know when secrets are being kept. First, when it comes to pending retirements, let’s acknowledge that congregations can do basic math. They know how old their pastors are, they anticipate that retirement is somewhere on the horizon. Second, leaders can sense when a leader is anxious about their own call, or when a leader has begun the process of detachment. In the absence of information, people make up their own stories about what is happening, and the stories that they make up are almost always more dramatic and fatalistic than reality.

We have taught ourselves this culture of secrecy and dread around pastoral transition. And it’s time to teach ourselves a better way.

Over the past several years I have worked with a number of congregations who have courageously entered the pastoral transition conversation, with openness and transparency. This is what I am experiencing. Congregations have remarkable resiliency around pastoral transition. Pastors can effectively discuss their departure plans with leaders, even years in advance, when several good practices are put into place.

• The governing body of the congregation (or its designated sub-committee) has an annual performance conversation with the senior leader, during which an honest picture of the health and vitality of the church and the clergy leadership role is explored. The pastor, in conversation with this body, develops a clear picture of his or her vibrancy in the system.

• When it becomes apparent that leadership transition is on the horizon, a trusted and authorized group of leaders is assigned the task of designing a leadership transition process. (This is often the personnel committee or the executive committee of the board). The departing pastor is an active participant in this design process.

• Depending upon polity, or the stipulation of by-laws, an appropriate group authorizes the transition plan. (In some congregations this is the governing body; in some it is the congregation at large.)

• A communication plan for announcing the departure is thoughtful and deliberate. People receive as much information as they need, when they need it, in order to manage their part of the transition process. Once a critical mass of leaders is aware, the whole congregation is brought into the communication loop.

• A transition team is appointed by the governing board to provide oversight to the overall transition. The transition team is not the search committee; the search committee has its own demanding work to do. The transition team consists of four to six spiritually mature, trusted, strategic thinkers in the life of the congregation. Their job is to monitor the congregations overall transition process; and to help negotiate the effective transfer of leadership authority, responsibility and accountability. The transition team stays in place until well after the new pastor has arrived.

• The pastor stays energetically engaged in the life of the congregation, all of the way up until the last day. The body of work that they do may begin to shift as they prepare for eventual departure. But, they stay engaged, active and vibrant in the pulpit.

• The pastor plans for the next chapter of his or her life and actively communicates his or her excitement about beginning that new chapter to the congregation, so that the congregation is able to envision life after ministry for themselves and the pastor.

The process of pastoral transition doesn’t have to be nearly as frightening as we make it. It is time to lift the veil of secrecy and discover a better way.

If-Then Plans

Friday, April 25th, 2014

The problem with most planning is that people simply don’t do what they have declared they want to do. There is a goal setting technique that claims a 300% increase in the likelihood of goal attainment. It is called the if-then plan.

if-this-then-that-red

Heidi Grant Halvorson, the associate director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center, wrote a featured article on the topic in the current Harvard Business Review, and in a recent issue of Fast Company.

Let’s look at how it works, and explore how we might work with it in congregational contexts.

If-then planning works by building contingencies into our neurological wiring. If ‘x’ (a condition) occurs, then I will engage in ‘y’ (a specific action). This very specific form of planning improves individual and group performance by sharpening focus and by prompting members to carry out agreed upon activities in a timely manner. It’s about creating instant new habits.

The problem with most goal setting is that the goals are stated very broadly. Many goal statements are not much more than a statement of intention.

    We will improve communication within our staff team.

The difficulty with a broad statement of intent is that people rarely know what they are actually supposed to do to impact the condition, and even if they do know, they often don’t deliver.

If-then planning creates an explicit link between our intention and a desired behavior that is likely to produce the intended state. It creates a clear trigger for action.

If we have reached the end of a program staff meeting, then we will stop to consider what information from our meeting needs to be communicated to the admin staff, and how that information will be delivered.

• If it is Tuesday afternoon at 4 pm, then we will have an all staff gathering around the water cooler, where our head of staff will provide a 5 minute update on the decisions made in the Executive Team Meeting that impact the rest of us.

The language may feel artificial and forced, but the tasks and the time frames are clear, which makes it more likely that people will engage the behaviors.

Halvorson recommends a four step process to create your if-then trigger statements.

1. Establish the broad goal.

    The work schedule of all staff will be transparent, so that those with a legitimate need to find staff are able to reach them.

2. Break the goal down into specific, concrete subgoals.

    a. Each staff member communicates their expected calendar of meetings/events for the upcoming week.

    b. Staff members communicate when they are on campus and off campus.

    c. Staff members working off campus communicate their availability for contact when off campus, and their expected time of return.

3. Identify detailed actions-and who, what, when and where-for reaching each subgoal.

    a. Each staff member updates a shared online calendar on Tuesday morning, indicating their expected schedule of meeting & activities, both on and off campus, for the next seven days.

    b. The receptionist oversees a color coded magnetic board that hangs next to the church office door. Each staff member moves their magnet to indicate their presence or absence from the building.

    c. Each staff member completes a pink slip when they go off campus during the work day. The slip is handed to the receptionist. The slip indicates whether the staff member will be reachable during their absence from the building, how they may be contacted if needed, and when they are expected to return.

4. Create if-then plans that trigger the actions.

    a. If it is Tuesday morning at 9:00 A.M., then staff will update their online calendar for the upcoming week.

    b. If a staff member is leaving the building, then they will come to the office on their way out of the building, to move their magnet to “out” on the board, and to turn a pink slip into the receptionist.

    c. If a staff member is entering the building, then they will first stop by the office to move their magnet to “in” on the board.

That’s the essence of an if-then plan. Give it a try on one of your tough behavioral challenges and let me know how it works for you!