What should be second nature to Christian organizations has, in some ways, been purloined by business leadership.
In the course of studying toxic leadership, I have read numerous books on business leadership that helpfully describe a positive and productive work environment. I have also interviewed many Christian organization employees and leaders who have suffered under leaders who have no interest in teamwork.
Business gurus identify various means of creating a respectful and engaging office that gets the best out of the employees. Amy Edmondson, in her excellent work, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, has many valuable things to say. I would like to take her extensive research and knowledge and place it in a biblical context.
Because that is where it belongs.
Edmondson notes near the beginning of her book, “Many organizations still rely on the top-down, command-and-control approaches that fueled growth and profitability in the industrial era.” [Edmondson: Kindle 267-268] Henry Ford’s “command-and-control” leadership worked at the time only because employees were treated as cogs in the machinery of industry. They repeated activities over and over and ran as fast as possible on a mindless wheel of production.
However, business leadership writers are seeking a brighter future for the workforce.
Teaming blends relating to people, listening to other points of view, coordinating actions, and making shared decisions. [pages 278-279]
Edmondson’s list of teaming characteristics are can give hope to Christian organizations wishing to lead their organizations to a place of flourishing. In a toxic organization or one ruled by a toxic leader, these four elements of a positive work environment are often non-existent.
When the IT director and I proposed a digital solution to the problem of printer use in my Christian mission college’s computer lab, the President of the college called me into his office. His wife, the lab’s director, had already explained to me that I was to “keep my nose out of her typing lab.” The President reiterated his wife’s nastiness and proceeded to make clear I had nothing of value to be considered.
Relationships in these organizations are usually deeply fractured. The autocrat has no interest in listening to other points of view. “Coordination” means an employee is told what to do and when to do it. And, there is no discussion or attempted agreement on decisions.
Fear and Control
To be fair, some leaders just haven’t gotten the memo and have little experience in developing these leadership skills. What they have experienced, their personality traits, and what they learned from others are more Henry Ford than a team leader.
On the other hand, some leaders “believe (most of the time, erroneously) that fear increases control. Control reinforces certainty and predictability.” [Edmondson, 508-509] An autocratic, toxic leader knows exactly what he is doing and will use fear to control all things organizational. Unfortunately, “When leaders fall into a default ‘do it my way’ management style, it silences nearly everyone except the person with the loudest voice or the largest office. [Edmondson, 1217-1219] And, a toxic leader always has the loudest voice and largest office.
If you are a leader who wants the most out of her employees, the Bible and Edmondson have much to say.
Gleaning from the Image-Bearer
Edmondson says, “When leaders explicitly communicate that they respect employees, it makes it easier for employees to volunteer their knowledge.” [Edmondson, 1233-1234] Christian organizations should want the knowledge present in their employees. God has created every man (and woman) as an image-bearer. That means they represent God and take after Him in various ways.
We are fools if we do not want to glean all we can from the database of skills and knowledge stored in our employees. The Lord said as much to Moses:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.
Numbers 11:16-17 (ESV)
God provided for his image-bearing servants the Holy Spirit that they were of help to Moses. They were to judge the people. Moses was going to be worn out trying to deal with all his office, as the head-honcho prophet of Israel, was throwing at him. God said, “I will come down and supply other men to help.”
We need to trust that the Lord does that with our employees as well.
Similarly, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthian church to recognize the value of every member of the church. This lesson can easily be transferred to a Christian organization.
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”
1 Corinthians 12:14-15 (ESV)
The Lord has, in His purposeful way, provided subordinates for the good of the organization. They need to be treated as gifts rather than objects of control and abjection. The various members of our team should be treated as of equal value to our ministry.
So, how do we use employees of our organization as gifts?
We create psychological safety. This kind of environment is safe for relationships to flourish. In this kind of environment employees and bosses listen to other points of view. In this kind of environment, there is a cooperative effort to reach a goal and there is a sharing of decision making.
“When a leader of a team is supportive, coaching oriented, and nondefensive in response to questions and challenges, team members are likely to feel that the team constitutes a safe environment.” [Edmondson, 2473-2475]
Leaders and fellow workers must respond to one another without jealousy or arrogance. They cannot act in a way that shuts down the free flow of ideas and suggestions. Trust has to be developed that ideas are welcomed and considered without harsh judgment. And, if that environment of trust is built then more challenging conversations can take place.
“Simply put, psychological safety makes it possible to give tough feedback and have difficult conversations without the need to tiptoe around the truth.” [Edmondson, 2151-2152]
When employees are psychologically safe, they do not fear broken relationships or getting fired when they disagree or present difficult ideas. There is respect and trust between members of the team. There is no jealousy.
“This belief comes about when people both trust and respect each other, and it produces a sense of confidence that the group won’t embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” [Edmondson, 2153-2155]
Jealousy and Gifts
One day the Lord spoke to Moses and He put His Spirit on seventy elders of Israel. The seventy prophesied, giving evidence of the blessing God had given them. They did not prophesy long. However, two men who had not gone to the tent of meeting continued prophesying in the camp. A young man, knowing the normal response of leaders to be jealousy of the successes of their subordinates, came running to Moses. He breathlessly explained to Moses the two men were prophesying.
Joshua, overhearing this exchange, was perturbed and told Moses to stop the men. He feared for Moses’ authority.
“But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’”
Numbers 11:24-30 (ESV)
Moses saw the great value in the grace of God being shared with other leaders besides himself. Joshua, one of the greatest leaders of Israel, likely learned an important lesson from Moses.
Subordinates must have the freedom to share their skills and knowledge.
Not Just Allowing Gifts
It is not enough, though to simply allow others to use their abilities. It is the leader’s responsibility to help those under their care to develop their abilities. Paul commands church leaders “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” [Ephesians 4:11-12 (ESV)] Help them grow their ministry skills, not by criticism but by encouragement. Fan their gifts to a flame.
As if taking her cue from Paul, Edmondson finishes saying, “The most successful leaders in the future will be those who have the ability to develop the talents of others.” [5043-5044]
All of this could just be a lot of law-keeping for organization heads who have no love for others.
So, having said all that has been said about building a team, I must hasten to add that real teamwork will come from the heart of man. If the leader simply follows some nice guidelines, such as the ones given by Edmondson, but miss the heart of the Gospel, it will all just be a fake.
Jesus always gets to the heart. If a leader doesn’t respect his subordinates. If the employees despise the boss. It will just be a whole lot of acting as a team but not truly functioning that way. It is imperative that the team develop an inner attitude of sharing, caring, and respect. If I put on a facade of respect for my subordinates or co-workers, they will know. It must go to my heart.
Unfortunately, the inner man is desperately foul. It takes a supernatural work of God to help us see our blind spots and respect the image of God in others. So, humbly ask for it. Realize you need it and plead with God for the mercy to see your employees as a gift.
And build a team for God’s glory.