Raising the Lowest Common Denominator

We’ve all been there. Stuck on a committee, task force or board that began with great promise but fizzled into dysfunction. Brought down by one member of the team who is unwilling or unable to participate productively in the work of the group.

Sometimes, the incapable member sits quietly and isn’t disruptive. Even this is disappointing because we lose the diverse viewpoint of one who was meant to contribute.  In the more typical scenario, the problem player throws up roadblocks to the work. People eventually grow weary of dealing with troublesome behavior and settle for any outcome to end the misery.

What can we do to raise the bar so that our boards, teams and committees do not settle to the level of their lowest common denominator?

Choose More Carefully

Our recruiting practices often exacerbate the problem. We get sidetracked with filling required slots rather than choosing healthy and talented people to lead. We emphasize the values of inclusion and diversity to a fault. We let anyone with an expressed interest occupy any role. Frankly, we are desperate to find people who will serve. A warm body who volunteers gets an enthusiastic response.

Careful selection always serves us well, especially in a period of institutional decline. A few quality leaders will always produce better outcomes than a bevy of warm bodies who are not equipped to decide or lead. This is true even when we are trying to incorporate diversity and honor inclusion.

  • If your church is declining in size, reevaluate your board and committee structure to make certain that it is right-sized for today’s work. This will allow you to make more judicious leadership choices from among your available membership body.
  • Don’t extend open invitations to serve on boards and committees. When we ask for volunteers we are bound to select those who raise a hand or step forward. Those who volunteer are sometimes not the best candidates. Make the selection of leaders a careful matching of skills with the needs of the mission. Ask for those with interest to submit their names for consideration in a transparent vetting process.
  • Make emotional and spiritual maturity a selection criteria. Passions and skills come in all shapes and sizes. Not every member of the team is equally equipped for every aspect of the team’s work. Emotionally healthy individuals are self-aware. They will determine when to assert their voice and when to submit to the leadership of others. Spiritually mature leaders work hard not to let personal agendas drive decision making.

The leadership structure of the church should never become a dumping ground for those who aren’t allowed to lead elsewhere in our culture.  Our mission is too important to settle for poorly chosen leaders who are unable or unwilling to participate productively in our work.

Empower the Healthy Players

First Church formed a task force of six people to consider adding a new worship service. Five members of the team were innovative, bright thinkers, well suited to the task. The sixth member, Andrew, refused to accept the basic premise that anything needed to change in the church. He resisted each new idea before it was explored. During every meeting, he stopped action by challenging the work process of the group.

At first, each time that Andrew offered resistance the team stopped to make certain that Andrew felt heard. They carefully re-examined both task and approach to ensure Andrew’s understanding and buy-in. But Andrew never bought in.

Eventually, the innovative players on the team quit offering new ideas. In the interest of inclusion, they yielded the floor to Andrew’s diatribes. The healthy players attended meetings less frequently and in the end the recommendation that was brought back to the board sought to preserve the status quo.

There are several things a team can do to ensure that the productive voices on the team hold sway and that the dysfunctional voices don’t run roughshod over good process and open dialogue.

  • Establish behavioral expectations up front. Determine how agendas will be formed, how information will be shared, how reservations are to be expressed, and how decisions will be made. Then act in accordance with those expectations.
  • Appoint a facilitator so that it is clear who is to officiate the meeting and balance the voices in the room. Without a clear facilitator, no one feels empowered to step in and set things right.
  • Clarify outcomes and manage your work per an agenda, with time frames assigned to each part of the work. A directionless meeting is a petri dish for the proliferation of dysfunctional behavior.

Clarity of roles, process and behavioral expectations will always make room for healthy voices and curtail the interruptions of less than healthy participants.

Move Around the Obstruction

Too often, we bounce back and forth between trying to convince and then control the obstructionist. We let them stop action while we work to bring them on board. Or, we try to make them behave well and coerce them into submission. Neither of these approaches is particularly helpful.

Players who are unwilling or unable to engage productively won’t be cajoled into better behavior. And it often takes too much energy and leadership capital to remove a volunteer from the team and deal with the aftermath of that choice.

There is a third way. Oftentimes, you can move around the problem player. When it becomes clear that a participant is obstructing, simply acknowledge their reservation but declare the group’s intent to move forward.

In the example above, the team could listen to Andrew’s reservations the first few times to make certain that they understood any legitimate concerns. However, once it became clear that Andrew was obstructing progress, any team member could simply say, “Andrew we have heard your concern, but right now we are going to focus our conversation on _______.” Then the team needs to ignore the problem behavior. Most of the time behavior will stop if it is acknowledged and then ignored.

Innovation and quality group work is core to the survival of the Church. We cannot afford to let recalcitrant or troubling behavior by one team member drag down the whole. Careful attention to our recruiting practices, establishing healthy behavioral norms, and simple conversational techniques for moving around obstructions can help any group work more productively.


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