Several Ministry Incubators staff and I are working on a multi-pronged assessment as an initial step of launching an innovation lab with a client. I have been honored and struck by their transparency. They sent us raw data from user surveys, allowed us to interview stakeholders, and outlined many of their internal systems for an audit.
Throughout the process, they have been generous, honest, and kind and resisted any impulse towards defensiveness or protectiveness. The experience points towards what might be widely applicable learning for anyone in an environment where transparency is called for or seemingly hard to find.
When I considered what gave this particular client the emotional resilience to withstand this level of vulnerability, I realized it was all in the team itself. None of the leaders were asked to offer up the vulnerabilities of their particular department or work. There was no sense of any individual person being asked to justify themselves or their work: in everything they did, they did it together. Their successes were their teams’, and their shortcomings were their teams.’ This is partially due to the nature of the organization. Still, having worked in plenty of churches and non-profits, I know how easy it is for leaders to take any feedback personally.
Allow me to be more direct: as a leader in ministries and non-profits, I know how easy it is for me to take feedback personally.
I also know that being clear-headed about where we are and where we’re invited to grow is vital for an organization’s long-term success. So how do we do it? How do we cultivate the sense of resilience and trust I’ve seen in this team? How do we not respond to every email and after-service chat like a missile to be intercepted instead of a learning to grow from?
Let’s face facts
The first reality we need to face is that we respond negatively to feedback about our work because we struggle to separate our personal sense of worth from the work we produce. We, as church leaders, tie so much of our personal sense of value into the ministries we build that when people criticize them, we can’t help but take it personally – for us, it is personal.
The second reality we need to face is that we respond most harshly when we think that those we perceive as calling us less-than, or inadequate, might be right. When we don’t feel secure in our position, self-worth, or work, we are much more sensitive to any perceived criticism because we are primed to hear it in every sentence. If our internal narratives echo “not enough” and “failure,” we will hear those words underneath everything said to us, whether the speaker said that or not.
So with the air cleared of what makes us susceptible, what are some elements that make us more resilient to feedback?
Trust in Leadership
The first thing I noticed on this team was a deep trust in, and care for their leader, based on mutual respect. They all believe their leader has the organization’s best interest at heart and that she could be trusted to tell them the truth. She had no problem admitting her own mistakes or questions.
This sense of trust and respect meant that people down the organization felt comfortable enough to do the same. They knew they could be honest about problems without feeling attacked or blamed.
In the parable of the talents, the servants who were given two and five talents go and double their talents. The servant given a single talent tells the master that because he knows the master is a “harsh man, reaping where [he] did not sow and gathering where [he] did not scatter,” he hid the money to make sure it was safe. He didn’t feel he could take any risks, even with a bank, because of how he understood the character of the master. His fear of the master meant that he was actually less able to maximize what he was given.
Those who trust their leadership to be fair, equitable, understanding, and honest feel more permission to take risks and, therefore, can produce better results.
Sense of Shared Mission
One of the other things that struck me about this organization was the sense of shared mission among the staff. The leaders we spoke to reflected a deep love for the organization in all of its iterations and growth areas because they believed in their work and defined the work the same way. Organizations that are unclear about what they do, why they do it, or who they do it for are more likely to experience territorial behavior by staff as they all try to defend their pet projects and frame others as a poor use of time and resources.
This team of people fundamentally believed in the product they were selling and that they were doing work worth doing. This anchor meant that, even as they explored new products and ideas, they could do so without hand-wringing about what it meant for their organization because of the staff’s sense of shared mission. Their “what” and “how” had some flexibility to shift without anxiety because their “who” and “why” were so deeply understood by the team.
This sense of mission gives those working in the organization permission for curiosity that cannot exist if an organization is fixated on its survival. One of the refrains we repeat the most frequently to our clients is the truth that God has not given up on our communities, God has not given up on us as leaders, and therefore if the way we were doing it is no longer working, God must be up to something new, and that is exciting. This organization’s sense of mission allowed them to see all the things that their organization could be instead of just what it isn’t right now.
Vulnerability is more Tolerable when Shared.
Overall, the most significant learning I have had from this process for how we can innovate better as organizations is this: vulnerability is much more tolerable when shared. When we can feel others putting their very best work, and their whole beings, out onto the table alongside us, then it is much less scary. The sense of load sharing of risk between the whole team makes the experience less isolating and allows us to rely on each other’s strengths.
As I mentioned in the beginning, part of the reason this kind of transparency can be so hard is that we carry our own insecurities about how we really aren’t enough into every interaction. When we care for our teammates and all of the team can be vulnerable together, sometimes our belief in our teammates can be a buoy when we struggle to believe in ourselves.
So what can we learn from this organization?
- Model appropriate transparency as a leader.
- Consider the stability of your foundation on your shared mission.
- Practice equitable, shared vulnerability, even with peers outside your organization.
We at Ministry Incubators are big believers in a high accountability, low shame culture. We would love to work with you as a leader, or your organization, on how to create a vision for innovation that is driven by trust, curiosity, and a shared vision of where God could be leading you next.