Want Better Employee Performance? Then Listen!

Many ministries experience high levels of employee dissatisfaction because misperceptions often go unrecognized or unaddressed. Interestingly, the single most common employee complaint, regardless the industry or mission, is not being heard. When employees don’t feel heard, it stands to reason why misperceptions continue to proliferate an organization. It often leads to gossip (someone is finally listening) which can turn a small misperception into a harsh reality.

Reality isn’t the same thing as truth, however. Reality may have more to do with perception than truth, which is why understanding the realities of our environment is so powerful. By recognizing the darkness of misperceptions, one can bring out the light of truth with…truth! Jesus said in John 8: 31-32 that If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

However, even the most disgruntled employee is reluctant to share how they really feel. After all, it’s difficult to confront others. This is why opening the floor during a staff meeting to discuss concerns is often futile, because nothing the leader says can belie the fear of retribution in a person’s heart.

This is why an employee survey that is conducted by a neutral third party where an employees anonymity is guaranteed is an effective tool, because it helps identify where dysfunction exists.

The first employee survey that I conducted was for a Christian school in California where I was the consultant for the school’s capital campaign. The longer I was at the school, the more problems I got wind of from the faculty and staff, problems that were impacting the success of the campaign. Most of the problem’s weren’t big, it was just a matter of wanting the headmaster to hear their concerns. So with the headmaster’s blessing, I conducted a survey that was informed by studies conducted by other research and from some of the issues brought up at the school.

When I sat down with the headmaster to go through the unvarnished results, which included more than two thousand individual comments to help support the data, it was a turning-point, both for the headmaster and for the school. Not only was the headmaster able to address concerns and answer questions, but he was also able to correct unfounded but highly destructive misperceptions. His standing among the faculty and staff improved significantly (as we were able to quantify in an end-of-year follow-up survey).

Most surprising for me was that very little changed as far as the organizational structure. No faculty or teachers were fired, schedules went unchanged, salaries stayed the same and work-hours were not reduced. What did change, and what had the greatest impact on the staff, was the way the headmaster listened and communicated. Where faculty or staff needed to be made aware of negative feedback, like I did with the headmaster, he addressed those issues directly with that staff member…often a department head. It also paved the way to strategically tackle those cultural mindsets that needed to change.

While ignorance can become Satan’s foothold in a ministry organization, a ministry whose leaders take their heads out of the sand by tackling the sometimes difficult reality of dysfunction within their organization allow truth to be their compass.

Buy truth, and do not sell it,
Get wisdom and instruction and understanding.

Proverbs 23:23

The Corrosive Mindset Of Organizational Dysfunction

The loyalty and dedication of those that work inside a ministry is unlike most not-for-profits or businesses. They often work long hours and for little money and often work inside even the most dysfunctional organizations, because the eternal reward is their real payoff.

Most ministries begin on shoestring budgets, understaffed with everyone doing a little bit of everything. From these experiences, founders and long-time leaders learn that to survive in ministry, they must manage every decision. As the ministry grows and staff is added, a culture evolves about how decisions are made, by whom, and how that information is to be shared. Older ministries are unique in that, like an old married couple, team members can finish one another’s sentences and everyone knows who and when to trust about what.

However, the benefits and optimism that comes out of this camaraderie often carries an unhealthy mindset that can be hard to overcome. Like rust that has set into a bolt and nut over time, the longer a mindset is left unaddressed the more difficult it is to change.

Expectations become culturally engrained where new-hires can end up feeling frustrated and discouraged as they are constantly made aware of the myriad of unpublished social mores that they have violated. Resentment and bitterness can grow from among the veterans who interpret a new employee’s ignorance of the “way things are done” as disrespectful; demonstrating a lack of loyalty and commitment to the ministry. After all, the veterans can remember that proverbial walk in the snow, uphill, both ways, and a new-hire just cannot appreciate the sacrifice that those before them have made to make the ministry what it is today.

This cultural mindset is why a receptionist who has been with the organization since its early days can have more power than a new division president.

Compounding all of these issues are the leaders who have gone from managing out of the ministry’s necessity to micromanaging out of the leader’s need to feel secure, the ever- changing ministry landscape where the things that used to create incredible results now have mediocre impact, the growing list of “competing” ministries, and dwindling donor funding, can exacerbate dysfunction.

When things go wrong, newcomers become easy scapegoats. Even those with the most potential to help the organization are targeted because that have invested far less than others in the organization and relationships from within the organizations are still immature. Agents of change are especially ripe for picking out because their changes are seen as an affront to the culture. Letting them go becomes the most satisfying solution because it involves the least (immediate) pain.

There is certainly no such thing as a perfect organization and where people are involved, dysfunction is guaranteed. Leaders, however, should take steps to open communication channels within their staff so that rust doesn’t set in and corrode a vibrant team.

If you only do what worked in the past, you will wake up one day and find that you’ve been passed by. -Clayton Christensen (from the book, Disruptive Innovation)

It’s Not Your Mission That’s Holding You Back!

Older ministries that are not meeting their funding goals, or those that experience an outright decline in donor funding, can begin to panic. They can make desperate decisions, like changing a long-held mission.
The reality is that many ministry organizations would rather change their mission than identify, accept, and then address those internal issues that are the most likely sources of their funding problems. So they place the blame on their mission and throw away years of mission investment to focus on areas that may seem to have greater funding potential, but in the end become their undoing.

Your mission is worthy because God validates it, not because man funds it. Your history proves your mission’s value, even if you haven’t had much success in demonstrating that to donors.
Ministry leaders and boards that are currently looking into the abyss of mounting debt and decreased funding and that desire a way back to their golden days of funding, must start by asking the hard questions and be willing to hear the unvarnished answers.

There’s an old saying that goes, “you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” and for ministries in decline, that couldn’t be more true.

A great first step is to open opportunities for those who are, or were, closest to the organization to safely communicate their attitudes and perceptions. Donor’s who have never returned should also be included in this so that the truth about the things that are holding you back can begin to truly set you free!!!