Avoiding the Blindside

“I totally didn’t see it coming.”

These words are all too common. They come from pastors and Christian leaders who are shocked and surprised to learn that their services are no longer required or desired. They feel like they’ve been blindsided.

Without a doubt, there are times when churches and organizations need to make tough decisions about individual staff.  However, when the decisions blindside individuals, there are significant costs that go far beyond severance or moving.

For the pastor or employee, the added costs include deep emotional hurts, significant loss of confidence, and the temptation to abandon their call.  On the organizational side, blindsiding employees often stirs distrust and conflict in the wider team and community. Damage control requires enormous emotional energy and dramatically slows organizational momentum. In the worst cases, other staff or congregants become disillusioned and leave.  Many church splits can be traced back to blindside events.

So, if the costs are so high, why do we keep hearing these stories?  One reason is that Christian organizations often have a passive-aggressive response to human resource management issues. The passiveness is often rooted in an aversion to conflict that arises from difficult conversations, busyness, laziness, poor human resource systems, separation of grace from truth or a misplaced hope that problems will resolve on their own.

The outcome from the passive response is that there is little feedback or conversation around dissatisfaction.  When you add in a pastor or staff member who may not be highly self-aware or keenly sensitive to discerning cues, then you’ve got a recipe for blindsiding.  The pastor or staff member is oblivious to the problem or does not sense the same level of urgency for change. Then, a crisis or proverbial straw breaks the camel’s back and there is an aggressive response that blindsides.

Avoiding the turmoil of blindside situations requires proactive steps on both sides.  

Here are two simple best practices:

1. Shared Expectations – I remember hearing a veteran pastor say, “Unclear expectations can kill pastors.” An up-to-date job description and current working clarity around key deliverables and outcomes is essential.  Key questions include: What are the most important outcomes for this quarter or year? What does success look like?  What specific role does this position play in these outcomes?

2. Regular Feedback – After receiving back 360 degree assessment feedback during Arrow, one participant shared, “What makes me most upset about my feedback is that the people around me felt this way about my leadership, but they didn’t tell me.”  This is an issue for both the organization and the individual.  The organization needs to ensure that there are regular formal performance reviews and more frequent informal check-ins. Ideally, there is an established culture of feedback, learning and growing that is modeled by senior leadership.

Individuals also have a key role.  They need to invite feedback from supervisors, peers and followers. This can be done through formal feedback, designing a simple e-survey or simply asking good questions.  As an example of helpful questions, “Making Yourself Indispensable” (Harvard Business Review, October 2011) suggested these profound questions (question 2 is critical) for employees to ask and invite feedback:

What leadership skills do you think are strengths for me?

Is there anything I do that might be considered a “fatal flaw” – something that could derail my career or lead me to fail in my current job if it’s not addressed?

What leadership ability, if outstanding, would have the most significant impact on the productivity or effectiveness of the organization?

What leadership abilities of mine have the most significant impact on you?

What proactive action step can you take this week to clarify expectations, improve communication and increase feedback for yourself and those you lead?