Handling the End Run

The phone rang late on Friday afternoon. I answered to the voice of an exhausted coaching client who needed help thinking through a “personnel issue”. He warned me that the situation would require some explaining and then launched into a ten minute description of a series of entanglements that involved the head of staff, a youth minister, the business administrator, an executive associate minister (who supervised the youth minister), and a much respected key lay leader. The story ended with an irritated head of staff that had been drawn into a situation that should not have involved him, a disempowered executive minister who was being accused of not managing his direct reports, a confused business administrator who had never been consulted on an area that was key to his role, and an angry lay leader who felt that his contribution to church life wasn’t being appreciated. Did you notice who was left off of the confused outcomes list?  Yep, the youth minister…who seemed to stand at the middle of the confusion, without having experienced any of the bad side effects of his own poor decision making.  That was my first clue that the scenario being described to me was a classic staff end run.  A major player in the scenario was pursuing decision making through unauthorized channels of decision making and his choices were creating mayhem in everyone else’s area of ministry.

An end run on the staff team occurs when one member of the team seeks to avoid a difficult situation, or seeks to build a personal power base, by circumventing normal decision making and/or supervisory channels. Sometimes it’s done intentionally and manipulatively and sometimes it’s done in ignorance, but it always ends in multiple players on and off the staff team feeling confused, disempowered and angry. The particular scenario that was described over the phone had all kinds of unique twists and spins in plot, but the basic story line is as old as dirt. A member of the staff team chose to take his case to a member of the congregation, instead of handling the issue within the staff team where it belonged.  The lay leader and staff member formed a power base that left the business administrator and supervisor out of decision making. Ultimately, the consequences of the scenario ended up looping back around into the lap of the head of staff, who had to figure out how to respond without undermining the authority of the employee’s supervisor.

What’s a supervisor to do when their employee pulls an end run and undermines their authority?  What’s the head of staff to do in an effort to restore balance?

The first step is a preventative one. Every staff team should have a behavioral covenant about this kind of behavior. There should be a clear statement about keeping decision making inside authorized decision making channels.  Furthermore, the head of staff should lead his or her staff team in dialogue about where the boundaries lie. A team can practice by imagining case study scenarios that illustrate the subtle distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate decision making influence.  

Once the incident has already occurred, the employee needs to be confronted about his behavior. And, he needs to be confronted by his supervisor. The supervisor needs to describe the inappropriate behavior(s) in very concrete terms. Stay away from broad labels and statements of judgment like, “You weren’t being a good team play”. Those statements aren’t particularly helpful. Be very specific about the behaviors.  For example,

  • A decision about a fundraising initiative was made without consulting your supervisor or the church business administrator.
  • A lay leader was encouraged to go directly to the head of staff with his complaints, without engaging other members of the staff team who were more appropriately equipped to have the conversation.
  • Pieces of conversation that took place within a staff meeting were inappropriately shared with a member of the congregation.

Once the problem behavior is described, go on to describe what a more appropriate behavior would have been. If this behavior is occurring for the first time, then a simple conversation between the employee and the supervisor is probably enough. You may want to ramp up your response if this is recurring behavior, or if the employee refuses to acknowledge their own actions.  The head of staff may want to sit in on the meeting between the employee and the supervisor to communicate his support for the supervisor through his presence. If the head of staff is in the room it’s still important that the supervisor remain “in charge” of the disciplinary session with the employee. The head of staff should never engage in disciplinary behavior on behalf of a supervisor. In effect, this reinforces the end run behavior that you are trying to eliminate. If the employee knows that his manipulative behavior can trigger a response from the head of staff he may continue to undermine his supervisor’s authority.


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