One of the hardest things about being a leader is correcting employees in a loving way. In his book Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf makes this comment: “Servant leadership always empathizes, always accepts the person but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough.” How does a servant leader effectively correct and encourage an employee toward better work?
The two key components to this aspect of servant leadership are truth and grace. Both are dependent on the other for effective management. Truth without grace is harsh and can often do more damage than good. Grace without truth enables bad behavior and won’t demand excellence. Both are necessary to continue to develop a trust-filled working relationship with employees.
Too Much Truth?
Bill Robinson, former President of Whitworth University, speaks of his personal experience with being confronted with only truth and a lack of grace in his book Incarnate Leadership. He was new to his youth ministry job when he was confronted by someone higher up in the staff. After being blasted by this leader, he quit. From this experience, he developed four key principles for confrontations:
- I will have a hard time hearing truth if I am busy defending myself.
- I will have a hard time identifying truth if the assault feels like it’s more for your good than for mine.
- I am not capable of accepting truth from you if the attack feels personal.
- I will stop thinking about truth if you make claims about my motives. Only I know my motives – and I would rather you ask me what they are than tell me what you think they are.
It is crucial when confronting an employee to come at the meeting with a mollified tone and thoughtful word choice. If the employee feels threatened, then they will raise defenses and be closed to hearing what you say, even if it is the truth. The way truth is said is just as important as the truth itself, because otherwise it won’t be absorbed and will offend the employee.
The way truth is said is just as important as the truth itself.
What is Grace?
Speaking with grace can be difficult to fully explain. Grace is part tone and word choice, part attitude, and part the spirit of God.
Richard Biery, in his lecture on Micah 6:8 at the 2009 CLA Conference, describes grace to us with a story about a Portland Trail Blazers basketball game. Before the game, the 13 year-old girl who was chosen to sing the national anthem forgot the words half way through in front of 20,000 people. The coach of the Trail Blazers jumped up immediately to help this girl sing the anthem. He couldn’t sing worth anything, but he knew the words and got the audience to sing with them. He transformed an embarrassing situation for this girl into an experience that gave the whole stadium energy and a positive start to the game.
Grace is a transformative power and energy that changes people’s lives, yet takes tremendous courage. Transforming grace is the power of the gospel in our daily lives. It is the power that can reach the depths of our souls to bring us healing, hope and promise for the future.
Grace is also an attitude. Having grace means that you give people the benefit of the doubt and are slow to make snap judgments about their behavior. Having grace for others means that you believe that they have good intentions and good motives. This doesn’t mean betting the farm on the perceived good intentions of someone you don’t know, but it does mean being positive and letting people prove themselves.
Having grace also doesn’t mean that you are a push-over when it is combined with truth. Truth is the foundation on which grace can be gracious.
Grace is a transformative power and energy that changes people’s lives, yet takes tremendous courage.
Speaking Truth and Grace at Employee Reviews
Southland Christian Church uses an effective way to review their employees. They realized that some employees needed truth spoken to them, but their supervisors where not equipped to do so. So they created a review process that included three people: the employee, the employee’s supervisor, and the supervisor of the supervisor. That way if the supervisor couldn’t say what needed to be said, his or her supervisor could say it for them.
This system isn’t flawless, but it has been very effective. The third person in the room keeps everyone accountable and eliminates any problems with “he said, she said.” The staff members have appreciated this system and have requested to keep the third person in the room. What started as a temporary fix has turned into an established practice – because it works.
Southland does formal reviews twice a year: once in the fall and once in the spring. The meetings have taken a tone of collaboration; employees get to create their own goals with the input of their supervisor. This is also a time for self reflection and gives the staff member a space to ask for additional support if needed.
Both truth and grace are responsible for creating this kind of growth. Striking a healthy balance can:
- Establish an environment of trust
- Encourage employees to be better and excel at their work
- Foster creativity and innovation
Cultivating a Climate of Grace
To borrow another concept from Robinson’s Incarnate Leadership, do you know whether there is a climate of grace in your workplace, or a climate of fear? The climate of grace promotes risk, self direction, service of mission, spontaneity, and boldness. On the other hand, the climate of fear promotes caution, obedience, service of leaders, secretive behavior, and tentativeness. In order to achieve your productivity potential, there must be a climate of grace in your workplace.
Ask yourself these questions to see if there is a climate of truth and grace in your workplace:
- Have your employees voiced their disagreement or hesitation about an idea recently (perhaps this week)?
- Are your meetings filled with equally-balanced discussion?
- Is there discussion or silence after presentations from the management or leadership?
- Do your employees quickly and genuinely apologize to one another when they say or do something inappropriate or possibly damaging?
- Can your employees openly admit their weakness and mistakes?